Know the Warning Signs: What Parents Need to Know About Sexual Abuse in Schools and Daycares

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With the school year in full swing, children everywhere are settling into their new routines. Most of the adults who supervise and educate children in school, daycare, and other childcare settings take seriously their responsibilities to the kids’ wellbeing, but that isn’t always the case.

Unfortunately, some teachers, coaches, and school staff are predators who sexually abuse the children in their care—and parents may be the last to know about it.

Neither crime in general nor sexual abuse specifically is as rare at schools as parents would hope. Victimization rates of all crimes among teens and tweens have decreased significantly since the 1990s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but there were still 1.4 million incidents of violence, theft, and other crimes occurring at school during the 2017 through 2018 school year. According to The Washington Post, reports of sexual assaults at elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools rose sharply between 2015 and 2018. Nearly 15,000 reports of sexual assault at K-12 schools were made for the 2017 through 2018 academic year.

Your child being abused by the people you trusted to protect them is a parent’s worst nightmare, and for too many families, it’s a terrible reality. For various reasons—ranging from not knowing how to express what happened to fearing that they won’t be believed—victims of sexual abuse in schools may be reluctant to talk about the abuse.

The difficult job of identifying signs of sexual abuse—and figuring out what to do next—falls on parents.

Signs of Sexual Abuse in School and Childcare Settings

Child sexual abuse can encompass any kind of sexual contact, conduct, or activity between the minor and a teacher or another adult. Child sexual abuse does not necessarily have to include physical contact.

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), signs that may potentially indicate that sexual abuse is going on include:

Physical Signs of Sexual Abuse

Some of the most visible signs of sexual abuse are the physical marks perpetrators may leave on victims. Suppose you notice blood on your child’s underwear or bed sheets while doing laundry. Or perhaps, while giving your young child a bath, you discover signs of injury—like bruising, swelling, or pain—around the genital or anal areas. Any physical injury that appears anywhere on the body could potentially be evidence of the force an abuser used to sexually assault a child.

Even with these signs, it isn’t always obvious whether abuse has occurred. Your child could have legitimately gotten injured in an accident that has nothing to do with abuse. Still, if the explanation you’re given doesn’t add up, you notice a disturbing pattern of injuries, or your child displays other symptoms that cause you to suspect abuse, take that instinct seriously.

Behavioral Warning Signs of Child Sexual Abuse

Behavior changes are also potential signs that your child is being abused.

Nightmares—especially in children who don’t usually have sleep disturbances—may be a warning sign. So can changes in hygiene routines and in your child’s level of comfort with touch and physical contact.

It’s not uncommon for children who are physically abused to regress to developmentally inappropriate behaviors, although stressful transitions in their lives can also cause behavior regressions. Losing interest in activities and withdrawing from social interactions your child previously enjoyed—not in ways indicating that they have outgrown certain things, but rather in ways that suggest depression—are other signs to watch out for.

Finally, inappropriate sexual behaviors displayed by children may be a sign of sexual abuse.

Distinguishing behavioral symptoms of abuse in children from normal developmental changes—or from signs of other troubles not related to abuse, like mental health concerns—can be challenging. Generally, if you notice unusual behaviors that concern you, it’s best to talk to your child about these changes and what’s prompting them. Talking to a professional, including a pediatrician, psychologist, and/or licensed therapist, can help you understand which changes are developmentally normal and which could be cause for concern.

Verbal Indicators of Child Sexual Abuse

How children communicate may also be affected by abuse. A child who has been sexually abused may become afraid to talk, especially if their abuser has threatened or warned them not to tell. Alternatively, victims of abuse may become prone to emotional outbursts that are unusual for them. In particular, the use of sexual language by children could potentially indicate that abuse is going on.

What Steps Should You Take If You Believe Your Child Has Been Abused at School or Daycare

If you suspect that your child could have been abused at school, the first thing you must do is make sure they are safe. Don’t allow your child to be in the presence of their abuser, especially alone. Make sure your child has a chance to be compassionately examined and cared for by a pediatrician and a psychologist or therapist, and follow through with treatments that could aid in their physical and emotional recovery.

If possible, make school administration personnel aware of your concerns, a step that can help protect other children. Sexual abuse at school is often an “open secret,” according to The Guardian, with multiple children being aware of the abuse a perpetrator commits even though the adults who could put a stop to it are kept in the dark.

Report concerns about potential child sexual abuse to the police as soon as possible so that a criminal investigation can begin. Consider speaking to a sexual abuse attorney who can conduct their own investigation and help you hold the institution legally responsible for its negligence in allowing this harm to come to your child.

There is no excuse for sexual abuse to ever occur at a school or daycare—or anywhere else, for that matter. Your child deserves the support, compassionate care, and justice that can help them feel more like themselves again, physically and emotionally, and allow them to move forward with their life.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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