August 23, 2007
Street smarts safety program helps Orthodox kids combat abuse
Thirteen first-graders sit on the rug in their classroom at Shalhevet School, several with their hands raised. A guest speaker has just asked, "What would happen if you got lost at Toys 'R' Us? Who would be someone you could ask for help?"
"Someone who works there," one of the children calls out.
"Good. And how would you know who works there?" the speaker responds, holding up a picture of a cashier wearing a blue vest.
The speaker, Marlene Kahan, is a volunteer who has come to present Safety Kid. The program -- its full name is the Aleinu Julis Child Safety Program -- was developed by the Aleinu Family Resource Center, the arm of Jewish Family Service that reaches out to the Orthodox community. Safety Kid's goal is to teach day school children about safety issues -- including sexual abuse -- in a culturally sensitive manner. Visual aides show boys and men wearing yarmulkes, as well as women in skirts and children walking to synagogue. Discussions about strangers who might come to the front door mention not only the UPS man, but "the man who comes to collect funds for Eretz Yisrael." The instructional cards are currently being adapted for use in non-Orthodox Jewish day schools as well, and will likely be introduced this school year.
The Safety Kid program is the latest in a series of proactive programs Aleinu has developed over the past few years to protect children from abusive situations and to help parents and institutions know how to handle such crises when they come up.
While in the past abuse was not openly discussed in the Orthodox community, Aleinu has made it a priority to bring the problem to the forefront so that children, parents, teachers and rabbis can deal with it in an informed and intelligent manner. The Los Angeles agency has become a national leader in the Orthodox world in creating these programs and policies.
The urgency for such programs became apparent over the last several years, when incidents of sexual or emotional abuse in Orthodox schools, shuls and youth groups were described in articles in the Jewish press.
The number of incidents in the Orthodox community doesn't exceed the national average, but within the past two years, there have been high-profile incidents in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. Aleinu Director Debbie Fox, who developed Safety Kid with colleague Wendy Finn, says that the program was produced in response to such episodes.
"We wanted to do something to help by providing tools which could help prevent future occurrences," Fox said.
More than five years ago, Fox began working with Aleinu's Halachic Advisory Board to develop a conduct policy for school administrators and teachers. The policy stipulates appropriate and inappropriate behavior, both verbal and physical. School personnel also receive training on how to spot and report signs of abuse. Since its introduction in 2002, the policy has been adopted by 28 Los Angeles-area schools. Torah U'mesorah, a national umbrella organization for Orthodox schools, adapted and adopted the policy for its 700 constituent schools.
But Fox wanted something specifically geared for the children -- a way to give them tools to help prevent incidents. She first tried adapting material produced by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, but found it didn't resonate with Orthodox audiences.
When she shared her concerns, Aleinu board member Mitch Julis and his wife Joleen came forward with a grant to adapt the materials, and Safety Kid was born. The couple has since pledged funding for the next four years.
The program involves a 45-minute classroom presentation, given by a trained volunteer; a 10-minute video; and a take-home kit containing a coloring book, DVD, mouse pad and magnet. Prior to the student presentations, the school principal is introduced to the materials and a parent workshop is held.
Nettie Lerner was hired by Aleinu a year ago to bring the program to local schools.
"This is revolutionary in the Orthodox community," she said. "Historically no one talked about abuse. Now we have a way to prevent [problems] and empower children."
Safety Kid, named for a character on the DVD, teaches "The ABCs of Safety," which include such strategies as asking for help in troubling or dangerous situations; bringing a friend when going places; checking with parents before changing agreed-upon plans; telling parents or other trusted adults when someone has done something to make them feel uncomfortable; and safely exploring the Internet.
Children are taught the difference between a surprise (something good that will eventually be revealed) and a secret (something that feels bad, that is not supposed to be shared). They are encouraged to yell "no," run and tell a trusted adult if someone asks them to do something they shouldn't. They learn the difference between "OK" touches and "not OK" touches.
Kahan, who addressed the Shalhevet first-graders, is one of 16 parent volunteers who travel to different schools to present Safety Kid. "I hope they learn to think before they act -- to not be so impulsive," says the mother of three. "Maybe you can save them from some situation."
Organizers acknowledge the fine line between empowering and frightening. "We make sure not to scare the kids," Lerner said. "We give them tips for safety and things to think about."
Lerner said that every Orthodox school in Los Angeles received the presentation during the 2006-2007 school year. This school year, Safety Kid will be presented at Conservative and community day schools, using materials with modified graphics. Future plans include developing a pre-school program and one for older children.
The program has already attracted interest outside of Los Angeles. Fox has received inquiries from counterparts in Chicago, New York, Montreal, London, Phoenix, San Diego and Seattle.
"The community has acknowledged the issues," she said, "and we have provided a way that works to prevent problems and empower children."
Family Safety Day will be held at Shalom Institute, September 8, 34342 Mullholland Highway, Malibu. For more information, call (818) 206-2222 or visit http://www.grodanlaw.com and click on seminars.