To prevent child sexual abuse, we must expand school-based programs for adolescents

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When you see a tragic news headline about child molestation, who do you imagine the perpetrator to be? The stereotype is an adult male.

However, up to half of child sexual abuse is actually perpetrated by older youth. Harmful sexual behavior by older children and adolescents is an issue that is emotionally challenging and often goes unaddressed when discussing child sexual abuse. But it must not be swept under the rug, because it has serious consequences for both the survivors and perpetrators of these behaviors.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month — a good occasion to discuss youth-on-youth sexual abuse, because this segment of child sex crimes offers a significant opportunity for intervention before harm occurs.

In most cases, youth who engage in harmful sexual behaviors with other children (including younger children) do not do so out of a preferential attraction to children, but out of a history of abuse, lack of understanding of developmental differences, impulsivity, lack of monitoring, and other personal and situational factors that can be addressed through prevention efforts.

Research suggests that school-based programs aimed at teaching adolescents about proper behavior among peers, as well as developmental differences and the continuum from healthy to harmful behavior with younger children, could help reduce harmful sexual behaviors.

Such programs already exist but ought to be expanded. Among many examples:

Mental Health America of Greater Dallas offers a curriculum named WHO (We Help Ourselves) that encourages learning through age-appropriate videos, discussion topics, situational problem-solving and follow-up activities aimed at school children of all ages.

The Healthy Relationships, Safe Choices, Connected Youth program targets grades seven through nine and promotes healthy youth relationships through innovative programming, research, education and consultation.

Others are being tested now, such as Responsible Behavior with Younger Children (RBYC), which aims to prevent adolescents from sexually assaulting younger children. Currently in its pilot stages in Baltimore middle schools, RBYC is provided to all adolescents, not just those labeled as “at-risk.”

RBYC uses evidence-based approaches to reduce known risk factors for harmful sexual behaviors by adolescents. For example, due to adolescents’ limited knowledge of developmental differences, they may mistakenly believe children are able to consent to sexual activity. Programs such as RBYC would challenge potentially harmful attitudes and beliefs by educating adolescents about differences between children and older youth.

After allegations of and a conviction for child sexual abuse at the USA Gymnastics program, Gov. Greg Abbott announced a policy initiative recommending $39 million in state funding to increase efforts to address sexual violence. This initiative represents an important opportunity for Texas to shift our attention toward evidence-based approaches for preventing the public health problem of child sexual abuse.

Most of the existing approaches to prevention are school-based programs aimed at preventing sexual victimization by teaching children “the three R’s”— recognize, resist, report. While such programs have benefits, research has not yet found these programs to be effective in reducing rates of abuse.

We encourage Abbott to incorporate programs like those described above into the curriculum for Texas middle schools as part of his initiative. If we can prevent first instances of child sexual abuse, we can prevent the emotional trauma that victims and families endure.

We can also reduce the financial cost to state and federal governments associated with investigating and prosecuting child sexual abuse cases, treating victims, and incarcerating and managing convicted sexual offenders.

It is our obligation as advocates for children to follow the science when it comes to preventing child sexual abuse. Until we commit to taking the road less traveled in the prevention of sexual violence, we will continue to fall short in our pursuit to protect children.

Disclosure: TexProtects has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Lee Nichols

Communications director, TexProtects

Maggie Ingram

Student, Johns Hopkins University