SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Here is a horrifying statistic. In 2017, more than 58,000 children were sexually abused in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Twenty states now require schools to teach sexual abuse prevention. Vermont was one of the first. Some of the lessons there start as early as preschool.
Wyoming Public Radio's Tennessee Watson traveled to Vermont and sends this report.
JOY KITCHELL: So many smiles. Can you decide who's feeling safe and who is feeling pride?
TENNESSEE WATSON, BYLINE: Joy Kitchell's sitting on the floor with a group of 3- and 4-year-olds, reading a book called "How Are You Peeling?" It has colorful photos of fruits and vegetables with faces on them, each showing a different emotion.
KITCHELL: Which one are you pointing to?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: That one.
KITCHELL: And how are they feeling?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: He's feeling sad.
KITCHELL: Feeling sad. Oh, he does look sad, doesn't he?
WATSON: Of course, feelings come up all the time in preschool, but Kitchell says this lesson is also designed to help protect little kids from something that's a lot harder to talk about.
KITCHELL: A person who is grooming a child to be their victim - they are going to do it in such a way that it's not going to be painful. It's going to be confusing.
WATSON: Around 90% of child sexual abusers are someone the child knows. That's according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center. Kitchell says that makes it even harder for kids to understand that something bad is happening. So today's lesson starts with a simple idea - pay attention to how you feel.
KITCHELL: Show me your happy face. And show me your - I don't know - my mixed up, confused - your, like, confused face.
WATSON: Kitchell says that's an important departure from teaching good versus bad touch.
KITCHELL: If a child is taught that's good touch or bad touch, and it's not a bad touch, but it's confusing, then they may not understand that it's OK to go to a trusted adult and figure that out.
WATSON: Kitchell worked as a teacher and a principal for years before turning her focus entirely to sexual abuse prevention. She now runs a child advocacy center in Bennington, Vt. She says teaching children they can tell other grown-ups when they're confused means they don't have to decide for themselves if the touch is bad. And there's an important difference between teaching a kid they should tell versus teaching a kid they can tell.
LINDA JOHNSON: We don't want to add guilt and a sense of responsibility to children who've been victimized.
WATSON: That's Linda Johnson, the executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont. Her organization distributes the curricula Kitchell teaches. It's a series of age-appropriate lessons taught every year from pre-K through eighth grade. Those lessons also address sexual abuse between kids. Johnson says talking about that early might keep kids from doing harm as they get older. So one reoccurring theme in the curricula is the meaning of no.
JOHNSON: That is the foundation of consent.
WATSON: Johnson says, when one kid isn't willing to share with another kid, grown-ups often jump in to force them to share. But she teaches adults to take a different approach. She says it's important to remind kids that hearing no is a part of life.
JOHNSON: And we can teach this to 2-year-olds and then again at 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7, 8, 9, 10, until there they are in that situation in the car and one wants to, and one doesn't want to. They have to be able to accept no for an answer.
WATSON: Vermont is now one of 20 states that mandate sex abuse prevention education in schools. That's according to the Enough Abuse Campaign to end child sexual abuse. Nine other states allow or recommend this type of education, and 21 states have no laws at all.
KITCHELL: It's sad to hear that it's not across the United States.
WATSON: Joy Kitchell, who was reading with the preschoolers, thinks all little kids should learn the lessons she's teaching.
KITCHELL: Why would you not want your kids safe? I just can't imagine not wanting to make things better.
WATSON: Kitchell says it's up to adults to know the signs and symptoms of abuse and teach behaviors that could prevent it. For NPR News, I'm Tennessee Watson in Bennington, Vt.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.