Breaking the silence: How early should children be educated about sex abuse?

Published: Feb. 12, 2016 at 2:42 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 12, 2016 at 4:00 AM CST
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(KLTV) - Statistics related to sexual assault and children are rising nationally.  The National Center for Crime Victims reports 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys will be sexually assaulted before they are adults.

Once in college, the high rate of sexual crimes continues. Federal agencies, as of January 27, are investigating 161 colleges and universities in 199 cases of mishandling sexual assault reports.

Related: Breaking the Silence: Texas colleges face scrutiny for under-reporting sex assaults

No East Texas colleges or universities are the subject of these investigations, but efforts are ongoing to increase awareness and limit incidents.

"Our students generally are right out of high school; the vast majority of them are young men and women," said Fred Peters, director of public affairs at Tyler Junior College. "Their moms and dads entrust us with keeping us safe, and that's the most important thing."

Victims advocates, like D.C. attorney Laura Dunn, say sex assault awareness and education can't wait until college. Dunn is motivated by the college sex assault victims she represents.

"I think sexual violence will continue to be a problem until our country invests in meaningful prevention education that starts in middle school and is emphasized throughout high school," said Dunn.

The scope of that problem in East Texas can be tracked in college student counseling center intake data obtained from UT Tyler.

On the anonymous questionnaire, students were anonymously asked if someone had sexual contact with them without their consent. The overwhelming number of incidents, students said, occurred 'more than five years ago' according to UT Tyler documents dated between 2011 to 2015.  A total of 73 instances were recorded by the student responders during a time they likely were still in grade school.

Forensic interviewer Rubyth Renteria in Smith County said it's never too early to begin to talk to a child about sexual assault.

"We do teach them that bathing suits cover private parts, parts of the body that no one should see, touch, or take a picture of," Renteria said.

"I was actually at an elementary school and when I asked the kids did they know what private parts were; they had no idea."

Renteria takes a sex abuse curriculum called "Happy Bear" into Smith County schools grades K-12, but she wishes they were welcome in more school districts across East Texas.

"For some schools, sex abuse is very taboo," said Renteria. "So many are scared of having it on their campus and it's just letting them know that 'hey it's not a scary thing, we can together work together to actually even improve scores because maybe their victimization is what's hindering them from learning or causing a disability to be able to pass the STAAR test.'"

The National Center for Victims of Crime estimates 1 in every 5 girls and 1 in every 20 boys will be sexually assaulted before the age of 17

Tanna Barrett, a mother of three and advocate for sex assault victims struggles with what age is the right age to talk about sexual assault with her children.

"No one wants to see that side of humanity," said Barrett. "Having the conversation about the birds and the bees makes any parent quake in their boots, I'm still a little nervous about talking to my 10 year old on what's appropriate."

Barrett says she knows that without that education component, many children may not know how to report abuse.

"We educate on kidnapping, we educate on stranger danger. How does a child even answer that question of have you been touched inappropriately if they don't even know what it means?"

According to police records, in 2015 there were 76 reported sexual assault crimes against children in Longview, and 46 reported in Tyler.

Ken Vaughn, operations officer at Tyler Independent School District said they've had some form of sex abuse training for all grades as far back as he can remember.

"There's always a challenge, especially with elementary kids, of parents feeling that it's not best for schools to teach [about sex abuse], because it's their responsibility."

Vaughn said parents are allowed to opt their child out of the programming if they don't want it taught to their child.

Without schools reinforcing this kind of safety, Renteria said some young children may not understand that they are living as victims.

"A child may think it's normal behavior...that's what they've known since as young as they can remember, so they grow up thinking it's normal for whoever is doing this to me," said Renteria. "And once they receive that education they realize, ok, maybe this wasn't normal."

In Texas, a law also known as 'Jenna's Law' requires sex abuse education to be happening at every grade level in public schools.

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