According to a survey carried out in 2016, nearly 1 in 3 students aged 18–19 in Norway said they have experienced some type of a physical, sexual offence. In 75% of these cases, the offender was a person known to the victim. Despite the prevalence of sexual violence and sexual abuse in Norway, this topic is absent from classroom discussions.
Since students spend several hours a day at school, teachers are in a position to recognize signs of abuse, and to educate children on channels for reporting abuse and where to seek help. According to Goldschmidt-Gjerløw, the author of new research on this topic, teachers have an ethical and legal responsibility, and should be teaching about abuse in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The situation, however, looks very different in practice; Goldschmidt-Gjerløw interviewed 64 teachers in 2018, many of whom said that they deal with the topic of sexual abuse to a very limited extent, if at all. According to Goldschmidt-Gjerløw, teachers avoid the topic for a number of reasons. School curriculum mentions abuse, but not explicitly sexual abuse (the most common textbook devotes only half a page, out of 300 pages, to this topic). Additionally, teachers don`t feel comfortable bringing up such personal, sensitive, and emotional topics, fearing that they could re-traumatize the student or expose the victim to stigmatization. Finally, sexual abuse is still a taboo topic, so often the victim chooses not to break the taboo and keeps it secret.
Two international studies suggest that preventive teaching should be part of the solution: ‘When children become informed about what sexual assault is, what relationships are characteristic between the abuser and the victim, and what they can do to break out of this pattern, they become better able to protect themselves from the abuser and the abuses. I believe it’s an important lesson for teachers that talking about this in the classroom gives children greater protection,’ Goldschmidt-Gjerløw said. In addition, textbooks should be developed to include materials for teachers on sexual abuse, and they should receive training to feel comfortable having and reacting to such discussions with their classes.
‘The more school administrators put sexual violence on the agenda and make sure that teachers become more competent, the safer teachers will feel in addressing the topic’, believes Goldschmidt-Gjerløw.