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Healthier Relationships, Healthier Schools

The College's landmark sexual abuse prevention program puts trust and care at the centre.

By Andrew Fifield
photo: istock

Five students of various ethnicities running outside.

"He's on our level. He was one of us … so he became a really relatable person. When I look back, I felt like I was putty in his hands."

Those words, spoken by a survivor who was sexually abused by a teacher, can be found among the video testimonials that are a powerful contribution to a new online sexual abuse prevention program developed in partnership between the Ontario College of Teachers and the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (C3P).

The program, which formally launches on January 3, 2022, was legislated by the provincial government to bolster the College's ability to serve the public interest by protecting student safety. All Ontario Certified Teachers (OCTs) are required to successfully complete it by August 31, 2022, while new and returning applicants must complete it to be eligible for certification by the College.

"The College protects the interests and well-being of students, so C3P is a natural partner for us," says Paul Boniferro, the College's Transition Supervisory Officer. "While incidents of student abuse are rare, this program reflects our ongoing commitment to student safety by providing professional development opportunities to College licensees."

The program content, with video testimonials from both survivors and offenders, complements existing College resources such as Professional Boundaries — An Advisory for Ontario Certified Teachers. Together, they provide OCTs with an updated understanding of how to more quickly identify signals that a student may be at risk and more readily take action to intervene.

"This program is a critical next step in a series of student safety initiatives developed by the College over the past two years," says Dr. Derek Haime, OCT, the College's Registrar and CEO. "It will strengthen the profession when all OCTs, myself included, are empowered to pass the benefits of this program on to students through the creation of safer and more supportive learning spaces."

The partnership and program is the first of its kind for the teaching profession in Canada and will serve as a model for other regulators and ministries of education, according to Noni Classen, director of education at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

"I've had numerous conversations with people across the country, and they are watching this initiative closely because it will lead the way," explains Classen. "There has been a gap when it comes to helping teachers better understand what high risk behaviour looks like, and how to act on it when they see it."

Ensuring that educators embody the trust placed in them is crucial to the development of safe learning environments that support student well-being. It also draws a clearer line between boundary breaches that are the result of poor judgment and those that may be the result of abusive intent.

"The program focuses on what creates healthy relationships between adults and students," Classen says. "What somebody may readily identify as concerning behaviour — that may not be illegal — can still erode relationships because it crosses boundaries."

The impact of that erosion is clear in the stories of survivors. Such a realization not only makes disclosure more difficult for the affected student, it can also hinder their future recovery.

"Our goal is to ensure unhealthy relationships do not become something worse," Classen adds. "But if they do, we want educators to have systems in place to intervene early."

Early intervention requires vigilance because most children who are being abused will not reveal it, according to Classen. For those who do, disclosure is typically not a one-time event. Instead, it is a process that often begins by "testing the waters" with a behavioural change or by revealing seemingly small details to a trusted adult and gauging their reaction.

Furthermore, Classen suggests that survivors who felt supported as they revealed information were more likely to successfully recover.

Tying together the development of healthy relationships and how they can prevent abuse from occurring and ease the way to early and supportive intervention when it does, is what makes this program a new model for the teaching profession in Canada, Classen adds.

"In the past, we've relied too much on waiting for the child to say something," she says. "Everything hinges on them making a difficult disclosure, but it is not realistic or responsible to continue with that expectation."