Think About It: The sound of silence

At first, I thought the greyness I felt was January, the dead of winter, the greyness of the sky, the straw-colored landscape and the still quiet that unsettled me. Except, I knew it wasn’t that, since I find a certain beauty in winterscapes.

And fortunately for me I don’t suffer seasonal affect disorder — or SAD, as it is commonly known. I know from others how distressing the condition is for those who have SAD and must seek remedies to help them navigate the darkness of winter.

After some serious contemplation, I came to realize I was at the one-year anniversary of the final push to pull together the details of a February forum on “sexual abuse toward and among teens.” The forum was planned by “The Beginning,” a small group of women who each experienced sexual abuse as a child. We formed our group with the intention to break the silence around childhood sexual abuse in our community, starting with this forum.

We were thrilled to receive sponsorships from our city and county governments, OMC, Sequim Gazette and endorsement from the Sequim School District. It was hard work to pull it together at the end, but we did it.

Too bad it snowed the week of the forum; still we had 75 people attend, half of which were parents or teens. The reviews were great.

Excited, I was ready for Phase 2 that included offering support to any community or organization wanting to break the silence. To my dismay, the excitement and energy melted with the snow and ice of the week. Involved people went on to other things.

Communities expressed interest but, in the end, I did not find leaders who wished to provide the community leadership necessary for success and meaning. I don’t believe it was due to a lack of the importance of increasing awareness but more likely due to other pressing priorities among limited resources.

In what seemed a nanosecond compared to the time I spent the last nine months, I was surrounded by silence far too reminiscent of the original silence and betrayal. I only had myself and our prototype to offer; it simply wasn’t enough.

Darkness deepens

The most startling expression of silence that followed was the Sequim School District’s decision to suspend the sexual health program, called FLASH, in its first board meeting following the forum. The forum and its decision were unrelated, separate realities. One reality was meant to increase awareness and dialogue, and another was to consider parental concern about the content of a program.

State policy is very clear that the type and extent of sexual health education is up to the local school board except for HIV education. A parent has the right to opt their child out of either. Parents and a teacher expressed concerns around the FLASH curriculum related to “gender identity,” which was enough to suspend the program.

I understood the plan was to form an advisory group, including parents, to determine the criteria for the program. Now, 11 months later, the group has yet to form.

I sent an email to the district’s PIO (Public Information Officer) with a request for clarification around specific questions including future intentions related to sexual health education.

The darkest spots during the year of silence were the continued discovery of nationwide childhood sexual abuse that’s been going on for years. The Boy Scouts, different camp counselors and private schools joined certain Catholic dioceses in explaining the seeming cover-ups of failure to keep kids safe.

I can’t help worrying how many of those border children taken from a parent and misplaced are in terrible situations. We don’t know.

Beams in darkness

Two community efforts were bright spots of calling attention to breaking the silence. The Office of the County Prosecuting Attorney applied for, and received, a grant for a prominent billboard display with a message encouraging victims of domestic, dating and/or sexual abuse to come forward.

County prosecuting attorney Mark Nichols tells me it will be up until the end of April. They hope to expand exposure by having the same graphic on Clallam County Transit buses by the end of the year.

A local group called Prevention Works began a series of showing the film “Resilience,” with follow-up discussion. The film highlights the documented health effects of children who have adverse childhood experiences, among which are sexual abuse. The film emphasizes the capacity of children to overcome their circumstances and the related importance of identifying and intervening in destructive situations early.

I was pleased by both, but continued to feel disheartened by our failure to focus as much on prevention as treatment — prevention that includes teaching children. Then I received an unexpected call.

I was delightfully shocked to receive the call 17 days after my first attempt to clarify the school district’s plan related to sexual health education and after my second prod before submitting my column. Shocked, because I am either on perpetual on hold or told to, as one exasperated school board member responding to my chronic questions put it, “Let it go!”

Delighted, because the caller was Jennifer Maughan, the Sequim School District’s assistant superintendent since July 2018, who was willing to talk with me about the district plans for the related curriculum. She explained to me she was working on several priorities and that current priorities were core curriculum. Still she had plans.

Maughan explained that sexual health education deserved a full analysis of compliance with existing policies as well as any changes that may be coming from the state before proceeding with establishing the curriculum. At that point, she and others will call together an advisory group that will include parents and educators to review the criteria and recommend a curriculum.

Barring unforeseen complications in any of these areas, she expects to have the sexual education curriculum in place by the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year.

My spirits lifted. Someone who could make change was, in fact, going to do it in a responsible way. Moreover, she welcomed my support for the schools and desire to help if needed. She might even call me and invite my help. I could just stop right here.

Except, I probably won’t. I can’t let go.

I don’t have the words to adequately explain the personal pain inherent in bringing childhood experiences forward in hopes of preventing it from happening to other children. All I can say is, the pain is compounded when made irrelevant, unimportant and uninteresting by people who can make a difference.

We should do everything we can to prevent childhood abuse, sexual or other, starting with giving children the voice to tell responsible caring adults. Break the silence — even if it’s a chip or a kid at a time.

Bertha Cooper spent her career years as a health care organization and program administrator and consultant and is a featured columnist in Sequim Gazette. Cooper has lived in Sequim with her husband for nearly 20 years. Reach her at columnists@sequimgazette.com.

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