Big headlines were made last year when allegations of child sexual abuse came forth against former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. The failure to maintain accountability when faced with the allegations led to the dismissal of the beloved head coach Joe Paterno and the university president, Graham Spanier. As this article is written, Sandusky is standing trial in Pennsylvania on the charges that he molested several teenage and pre-teen boys within the structure of the Penn State football program and through his youth foundation. The testimony has been graphic; read some of the news accounts here.
As we are told in the BSA’s excellent resource, A Time to Tell, sexual abuse is all too common in our society, and it isn’t always perpetrated by those who you’d think. We make a big deal about “stranger danger,” but the truth is that most sexual abuse arises from situations with familiar people. Indeed, many have testified that Sandusky had “a heart of gold” and was “a surrogate father” who appeared to care deeply for the boys he would go on to allegedly molest. A Time to Tell illustrates five situations – abuse by a relative, another youth, an on-line acquaintance, bullying by peers and, yes, abuse by a sports coach. (Click on each of these links to view the video segments.) The situations that the abused youth testified about in the Sandusky trial could have been lifted right out of A Time to Tell.
What A Time to Tell does, besides making youth aware of these situations, is to educate them to recognize when abusive situations are or potentially could be taking place. It gives advice on how to resist – to say “no” or to run away and not be deterred by typical threats by the abuser if the victim tries to flee, such as “I’m your dad’s brother. If you tell him, who will he believe?” or “This is a chance to realize your dream! If you don’t want that, I’ll stop wasting my time and my skybox tickets.” Finally, it encourages youth who were abused or were in potentially abusive situations to report them to the authorities – parents, teachers, clergy or the police. The videos are hosted by teens in a relatable but straightforward, no-nonsense manner. Yes, it can elicit giggles from some of our boys, but the material presented is deadly serious.
As Scouters, our boys may ask to talk to us about these situations. If a boy does confide in us, or if we suspect that child abuse is taking place, our obligation is to report what we know to our council’s Scout Executive. Our professionals have the training and the contacts to report to the appropriate authorities and to follow up.
One of our most important obligations to the youth in our care is to present A Time to Tell each year. April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and is an excellent time to conduct the presentation, since we will catch the Scouts and families who have just crossed over. As you plan your annual calendar, be sure to devote time to this important presentation. Usually, a regular troop meeting works better for attendance purposes than having a special session, and if the boys know ahead of time that they will be short one troop meeting, they can plan their business around it. The troop meeting guide has details on how to go about presenting the video and leading the discussion. If you’re not comfortable doing it yourself, ask another troop parent, or ask a police officer or a religious leader to help. Your chartered organization representative should be able to help find a presenter, particularly if you are chartered by a religious organization.
For Cub Scout packs, there is an age-appropriate program called It Happened to Me which covers the four areas of personal safety. The facilitator’s guide outlines the discussion and the DVD is available from BSA supply division.
One of the reactions related in testimony by Sandusky’s teenage victims was “I spaced out – I didn’t know what to do with all the thoughts running through my head.” A Time to Tell prepares boys to handle these situations, to recognize when they are happening, and helps give them the courage to get out of them. Being prepared and mentally awake – it’s what we are all about. And it helps you appreciate the lengths that the BSA goes to to protect our youth, including requiring youth protection training of all volunteers and no one-on-one contact situations with youth.