An interview with a survivor of sexual abuse by an educator: What parents can learn to protect their children!

KidSafe Foundation in collaboration with Kristi Kernal of The OAASIS Organization in Oregon (Oregon Abuse Advocates & Survivors in Service) is continuing the important discussion of child sexual abuse by trusted adults in our schools. The following is an interview Kristi had with a survivor – now an educator herself, who is sharing her story in the hope to provide adults with insight into the vulnerability of children, the grooming process, and tips to prevent abuse from occurring to your children.

 

“When I met Shannon Jones a few years ago, I quickly discovered that we had many things in common.  We share a

love for children, a passion for excellence in education, a faith that sustains us, and a compelling desire to raise

awareness about child sex abuse.  Shannon agreed to meet with me to share a story that is deeply personal to her,

with the hopes that it will help other parents take necessary steps and precautions to keep children safe in schools.”

Kristi Kernal, Vice President OAASIS

 

Kristi:               “Shannon, one of the reasons why I love working in the public school system with elementary-aged children is that for me, as a child, school was my “safe place.” “Home” for me was an oftentimes violent, unpredictable, and terrifying place to be.  When I was at school, I felt safe, happy, and cared for.  Because of my early experiences, I’m passionate about working now to create a school culture that is safe, positive and nurturing for children.  It’s heartbreaking to me that school was NOT a safe and happy place for you.  How did you feel about school as a child?”

 

Shannon:         “When I first started school I felt the same way you did.  It wasn’t until we moved overseas those feelings were replaced with ones of fear, mistrust, and isolation.”

 

Kristi:               “How would you describe yourself as a child?  What were some of the things you loved and were interested in?  What was your personality and temperament like?”

 

Shannon:         “I was an only child up to the age of 9.  During the first 5-6 years of my life I lived with my maternal grandparents as my mother was a young single mother. My grandparents were amazing and very protective; being raised in a house full of adults made me pretty mature for my age.  My aunt once said, “Shannon is a 30 year old in a child’s body.” I didn’t play with dolls or things like that.  I loved animals, reading, singing with my Papaw. I also liked going to antique stores and learning about history. I was a pretty easy going child and really wanted to please people. I was also very tender hearted.  My mother will tell you that I was opinionated and had no problem “educating” people on things they didn’t know. I think it was more that I had never been talked down to by my grandparents so I was conversing like I would with them.”

 

Kristi:  “How would you describe your family of origin?  What were some of the specific challenges your parents and family had, when you were a child?”

 

Shannon:    “My mother was very young when she had me so I was raised primarily by my maternal grandparents, Nanny and Papaw.  When I was 6 she met and married my step-father.  He was a fighter pilot in the Air Force.  Shortly after they were married we moved overseas to England.  This was extremely hard for me because I was moving away from my grandparents. During the first 2 years in England, my mother had two critically ill children. One with a birth defect called gastroschisis and the other with Downs.  Both spent much of the beginnings of their lives in hospitals in London.  (This was about a 2 hour drive from where we lived.)  My mother would spend her weekdays in the hospital with them and then my step-father and I would go up on the weekends or she would come home.  During this time my step-father would also be gone on Temporary Duty to various other countries in Europe.  When he was not home I would stay with other families in our squadron so that I could still attend school.  This left me alone on many fronts; it was sort of like being in foster care and I think I suffered from some of those same feelings of isolation, lack of family support and the sense that everyone was so much more important than myself.  Even at the young age of 9, I felt my siblings needed our parents more than I and my parents were already stressed to the tenth degree. I truly don’t know how my Mother survivedI am not sure I could have.  The character resolve that we were going to “make it,” and things were going to get better sort of became her mantra. I know her faith carried her when her body couldn’t.  My step father also began attending church.”

 

Kristi:   “That must have been a lot for you to carry, as a child.  Did you feel like you had any safe adults in your life that you could go to for support?”

 

Shannon:   “It was a lot for a child my age, or any age really, to carry.  Because I knew firsthand how sick my siblings were and they needed my parents, even more than me, I didn’t ask for much.  Unfortunately, I felt I was alone and had to deal with everything myself. There was no one to talk to about anything.  Because I was a pleaser I am sure my parents thought, “Oh, we don’t have to worry about Shannon.  What could she possibly do?  At school there was no one to talk to either.  When my abuse started I had a terrible 4th grade teacher who kind of sealed that fate for me.  I can remember helping a kindergartener take off her skates at recess.  Of course this made me late getting back to class myself.  I walked in the door and my teacher yells across the room, “YOU ARE LATE!!!! WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?”  I told her exactly what had happened and she called me a liar right in front of the class.  She wouldn’t accept my truth and kept telling me to tell the truth or she was going to call my parents.  For me, that was something I didn’t want to happen so I told her the lie she wanted to hear.  She called my parents after school and told them what a liar I was and yes, I got in trouble for lying from my parents. I didn’t tell them the real story either because I didn’t want to get my teacher in trouble and figured it would be easier on everyone if I took the punishment and said nothing.  I also thought the repercussions from this teacher would have been even more severe than that of my parents. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I told them what really happened. I think it was on this day that my abuser picked me out to be his next victim.”

 

Kristi: “What kind of hurtful and potentially dangerous messages did that experience with your 4th grade teacher send to you as a child?”

 

Shannon:  “I think it told me that even if you tell the truth you are going to be seen as a liar. It was far better to just hold things in and not make waves about anything.  I truly believe that I shut down and became a shell of the little girl I had once been.”

 

Kristi:  “Soon after, an adult in your school did appear to care about you, and reach out to you when you were hurting inside, and needed someone to care about you and validate you.  Can you talk about that?”

 

Shannon:  “Now that I am an adult I can look back on what happened to me and see that this man groomed me.  He had seen me in the library on the day that my teacher had called me a lair and came over to ask what was wrong.  You have to understand that this man was very close in age to my grandfather so I instantly felt comfortable and wanted to unburden myself with what had just taken place.  He told me he would help me.  He talked with me about how hard it must be not having my family around and being in a different country.  He seemed to genuinely care about me.  He knew so much about my life that I am not sure how much I really even revealed to him.  He offered to have me come and help him in the Library so that I didn’t have to be in class with, “the monster teacher.”  He also added that he would let me have first pick at the new books.  Having a veracious love of reading, this synched it for me.  At first I don’t think I could have asked for a better, “protector.”  He would get me out of class, talk with me and then just do really nice things that made me feel special; something that I hadn’t felt since leaving the states.  He also said things like, “You remind me so much of my granddaughter.”  He also shared with me that his wife was very ill and handicapped. (I am not sure if that was really true or he was looking for sympathy from me.) I can remember giving him a hug and saying I was so sorry for him.  He knew just the right buttons to push. (that is what predators do to gain trust of children and is called “grooming”)

 

It all began to change when school was out and the library was open for the summer.  One day when I came to the library he said he found a new book for me.  He asked me to stay after the other visitors were gone and I could, “Open the box and be the first.”  I stayed and he took me over to a quiet part of the library with no windows and gave me the box.  As I opened it he stood behind me and put his hands on my shoulders and sort of whispered/kissed my ear.  I froze.  This began a 1 year of sexual abuse that I didn’t even really have the words for.  It wasn’t until I was sitting in my 5th grade Sex Ed class that I knew correct words to explain what was happening to me.  I wanted to cry.  I felt so dirty, ashamed and powerless.  I can remember telling myself that we only had a few more months and then we would be moving back to the States.  I could handle it.”

 

Kristi: “Looking back, are you able to see how the school building, the staff, school culture, and other factors may have inadvertently created an environment where a child predator could succeed at gaining access to children? “

 

Shannon:  “Yes!  I believe our building was built in the mid-70 and the library was in an L shape with an entire section with no windows or exits.  It was located on the second floor so the side with the windows really didn’t help.  No one could see in.  Many on the staff didn’t seem to take a great interest in the lives of their students and no one made an effort to reach out to me except, of course, my abuser.  I don’t remember ever being told about stranger danger or safe and unsafe touch.

 

Kristi:  “When survivors like you bravely tell their stories, it helps bring much needed awareness to this issue.  When we talk about educating the public and parents on child sex abuse, it’s important for them to hear about the impact of abuse on a child (and the adult that child later becomes).  How would you say that your experience as a victim of child sex abuse impacted you?”

 

Shannon:  “Holy cow, where do I begin… I think I have strong trust issues and constantly feel the need to do things on my own; never depending on anyone because I feel they will only disappoint.  I have panic attacks about my own children being hurt and not being there to protect them.  I have control issues that border a little on OCD.  At times I battle with depression. I stress every time I hear about another innocent child being hurt because it takes me right back to being that child. And this is me after counseling.”

 

Kristi:  “At what point did you tell your parents about the abuse?  How did they respond?”


Shannon:  “I didn’t tell my parents until I was an adult.  They were crushed, flooded with guilt and ashamed that they had done nothing about it.  As they reflected back and knew they had seen changes in my personality but were so absorbed in their own personal struggles that it was sort of just on the edge of their consciousness.  This, I think was the hardest part, thinking something was wrong but not doing anything about it.  My step-father, who I love so much, felt like a complete failure as a father and protector.”

 

Kristi:   “Let’s talk about healing, because I know we both believe it’s possible to heal from many of the wounds and damages we experienced because of child abuse.  How has that happened in your life?  Do you think it’s an ongoing process?”

 

Shannon:  “After my oldest son was born I started going to a counselor because I was afraid something would happen to him.  This wasn’t postpartum issues; it was more similar to post traumatic stress.  It took me a long time to open up to my counselor about what had happened to me as a child.  I would talk about everything else but the abuse.  Finally she flat out asked me.  Dealing with the ugliness of abuse is very difficult.  There is so much misplaced shame and pent up anger/frustration that you have to work through.  It is so worth it but very painful and draining.  Healing is really an ongoing process.  Every day I have to lay my fears down or they will overpower me.  I know I could not do this if it wasn’t for my faith and the promises I have in it.  My amazing husband and children also play a HUGE part in my healing.  I think if it weren’t for them I would not be where I am today. “

 

Kristi:  “Shannon, you endured this abuse about 30 years ago.  Since then, society has become more aware of the issue and prevalence of child sex abuse.  Laws have changed and improved in that regard, including the fact that educators are now mandatory reporters, and trained here in the State of Oregon on mandatory reporting.  School buildings are constructed differently, with security and child safety in mind.  As an educator, parent, and survivor, do you believe children are safe from child sex abuse in our schools today?  If not, what do you think needs to happen in our schools to make children safer?”

 

Shannon:   “Good question.  I am not sure they are safer but hopefully their parents are more aware.  I believe we need to be equipping families and children with information to help protect them.  A great start would be adding curriculum to their coursework that deals with the direct topic of child abuse and exploitation starting at age 4.  It would be age appropriate and give children the tools to help protect themselves or at least know when they could possibly be in danger.  But ultimately, parents need to make the safety of their children a priority.  Find out who the adults in your child’s life are and look for warning signs.  Don’t just assume because a person is a school or church employee that they are safe adults. Parents need to learn how to have these discussions with their children. I know the anguish and guilt my own family feels and it is heart wrenching.  Lastly, in my opinion, the laws limiting when a person can come forward about their abuse needs to change.  There should NEVER be a Statute of Limitations to report sexual abuse. Most children do not feel safe reporting abuse until they are out of the abusive situation – that is why our laws about statute of limitations must change! Survivors deserve the right to seek justice no matter how many years have passed since their abuse.”  (For more information on the Statue of Limitations on reporting abuse in your state, visit http://www.sol-reform.com)

 

Kristi:  “I know that the safety of your own children is a deep concern of yours, as it is for the majority of parents.  In response to the sexual abuse tragedy recently discovered at an elementary school in Los Angeles, The KidSafe Foundation in Florida recently published an excellent piece on keeping children safe in schools. http://bit.ly/zpuo72   In this piece, KidSafe talks about the importance for parents to be having open and ongoing conversations with their kids about this subject.  What steps have you taken to keep your children safe at school, and other places?”

                       

Shannon:  “When my boys were younger we discussed stranger danger and that their bodies are their own.  No one else should touch them without their permission.  As they have gotten older we have talked about safe adults and then basically everyone else.  I found an excellent series put out by, Safe Side, and they use the term “Kind of know them”.  Safe adults are people that I have total faith in; my best friend and my parents, for example. “Kind-of-know them,” would be teachers, coaches, and the parents of other friends.  In the case of school situations my children know that if they ever feel uncomfortable they are to call me immediately and I will be there.  We have also role-played situations that might happen at school.  For example we have pretended that a teacher they know very well comes to call them out of class to go to the office, let’s say.  They can go with them but if that person deviates any little bit, then they are to run straight back to class and tell the teacher. They also know they are never to be with an adult at school alone.  Finally, they know they can tell me anything and we have an open line of communication.  We have even practiced them telling me some of the most “shocking things” (at this age its stuff like, I ate the last cookie and you told me not to) so that they can see my reaction and the way that I will talk through things with them.  These are hard conversations to have with your children but you must have them.  Sometimes I feel like I have taken away a little of their childlike innocence because we have told them people might act like they love you but they might be hurtful. They need to know if they are confused or uncomfortable by anyone’s words or actions they can come to me to check first and talk about it.  They need to know because it will keep them safer.  They need to know that I do this because I do love them and want them to be safe and happy; not carrying my scars.  I think we have found a good balance in our house.”

                       

Kristi:   “Is there anything else you’d like to share or add that you think would be helpful to parents and educators, in regards to the safety and well-being of children?”          

 

Shannon:   “I think the biggest thing is to be aware and have those conversations with your children.  Tell them every day that you love them, that you can handle whatever they have going on, their bodies are special and belong to them, if they ever receive a touch that is confusing or uncomfortable they should report to you immediately and it is never their fault if they receive an unsafe touch (even if they are not able to tell right away), and they are valued and precious to you. “

 

Bios:

 Kristi Kernal is a wife and the mother of two teen-agers, works as a Para educator with special needs children in Hillsboro, OR, and serves as Vice-President of O.A.A.S.I.S (Oregon Abuse Advocates and Survivors in Service). www.oaasisoregon.org

Shannon Jones grew up in an Air Force family spending much of her childhood overseas. She went to college at Montana State University where she received her B.S. in Education with an option in Special Education. Shannon has a post graduate Endorsement in ESOL-Bilingual Education and has taught for 14 years in both private and public school settings. She has authored and received educational grants from companies such as Intel, Target, Lowes, and Kohl’s. She has also been nominated for Disney’s Teacher of the Year, and is currently teaching 3rd grade in Beaverton, OR.

“This is one person sharing her story; however 1 out of 3 girls and 1 out of 6 boys will be sexually exploited before the age of 18. 90% of the time by someone they know. Those numbers are just the “reported” statistics and as we said above, most children do not report until they are out of the abusive situation, which may mean many years later. This is why we believe that there should NOT be a statute of limitations to reporting child abuse. The more we break the cycle of  silence of child abuse by sharing personal stories, the more we can all learn from these brave individuals to best keep all children safe. We thank both of these courageous and amazing women, Kristi Kernal and Shannon Jones for sharing this interview with us.”

            Sally Berenzweig, MEd, MA & Cherie Benjoseph, LCSW Cofounders of KidSafe Foundation


 

 

 

 

 

Testimonials

"Thank you for giving us the opportunity to be included in the KidSafe program. I highly recommend this program to other schools. We hope that we will be given the same opportunity for our Kindergarten and 2nd grade students to be a part of this wonderful program during the 2016-2017 school year."

Mrs. Keelyn Meselsohn 2nd Grade Teacher/Team Leader Tradewinds Elementary School

"The Safe and Smart Series Book My Body Is Special and Belongs To Me is kept in my middle school clinic and has been a tool that has opened many conversations for me between students that have experienced a difficult situation and were unable to talk about it. Through the illustrations and nonjudgmental verbiage the author has allowed kids permission to share their feelings about invasion of their personal space. Thank you so much."

Nurse Connie, PBC School Nurse 6.8.2016

"I'm so grateful that KidSafe has partnered with my daughter's school.  I learned so much in the parent training--how to recognize potential sexual predator behavior; how to quiz my child about what they would do in different scenarios; and how to explain safe and unsafe touch.  In addition, knowing that my daughter is receiving weekly trainings on these topics gives me great peace of mind.  I have confidence that I can reinforce what she is learning in school in order to prevent her from ever being a victim of such a heinous crime.  Thank you KidSafe for your dedication to protecting our communities' most vulnerable citizens."

Christina Kranick

“It was a normal Saturday and I was at the rink with my 7 and 8 year old. My son asked me if he could use the Men’s Restroom by himself.  Without hesitation, my daughter said,  Absolutely not! I was in KidSafe today and you cannot go to the restroom alone.  It is very important that Mommy is with you.. with us.   I was so proud of my little girl!  We are so blessed to have Debbie Miller at our school teaching our children the importance of safety. Many thanks to you all!  Your program and instruction is absolutely amazing.  Keep up the great work!"  

Tara Henley Admissions Assistant, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and School, Ft. Lauderdale

I am a parent of two Pine Crest children and I attended your program on Monday night. I just wanted to thank you so very much for the very informative seminar. As hard as it was to hear all of those things, it was very needed. We were thrilled that you were able to come and share that very important information with us and our children. So again...thank you.

Elisa Aronberg

Today’s training was awesome! It was very informative. Sally was a very good resource, she motivated us a lot! We want to pass on this information to parents, teachers and students! Thank you for offering workshops like this. These are tools we use to continue serving our children and families.

Participant from Children’s Services Council of Broward Seminar

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