Child-abuse Video Mix-up Sparks Parents' Criticism

April 12, 1992|By Michael K. Burns | Michael K. Burns,Staff writer

Susan Meyers' 9-year-old son was telling her about the "weird" videohe had seen at school that day when the alarm bells went off in her head.

The scenes, he recalled, showed a man trying to undress a neighbor girl, a man leaving a boy's bedroom warning him not to tell what he had done and strangers trying to entice children to come away with them.

"I was surprised," said Meyers, a Bel Air resident. "Every other parent I talked to was shocked by the content." The film it turns outwas an instructional videotape used in a three-day child-abuse course in Harford elementary schools.

Compounding the matter was the fact that a video meant for fifth-graders had mistakenly been shown to her son's third-grade class at Ring Factory Elementary School on the second day of the course.

The result: a half-dozen parents complained to school officials.

More than 100 pupils had seen the tape.

The tape mix-up and parents' complaints about the lack of notification about the course has a school board advisory panel looking into the issue.

The course, mandated by the state for grades one throughnine, teaches children to identify, avoid and respond to the risk ofphysical and sexual abuse. The curricula and the videos have been used in Harford schools for at least four years.

Meyers told the school board last week that parents should be notified in advance of thecourse's content so they could decide whether to allow their children to participate. She also asked for follow-up information to be senthome so that parents could discuss the sensitive issue at home.

"Any parent would like to know what is being shown to their children, so they can talk about it, reinforce the lessons, and calm any fears the child might have," Meyers said.

"If I have to sign for math papers, for spelling papers, I should be able to sign to approve something as sensitive as this," she said.

Meyers said she did not get advance notice of the class and that the notice some parents did receive was too vague to alert them to the content of the nationally distributed videos. She also complained that follow-up material was not sent home to promote family discussion.

Showing the wrong video resulted from poor labeling of tapes, she said. The titles of the two videos are almost exactly the same, she added.

The video produced forfifth-graders included a scene in which a neighbor asked a little girl to wear a piece of lingerie so he could make a movie, and a boy who was upset because his aunt kept touching his genitals.

"Some children will be very much affected about it. Daniel was one," she said of her son.

Had the school informed her of the video's graphic content in advance, Meyers said, she would have withdrawn him from the class and asked that "he get the information in another way."

School board officials say a letter had been sent home to Ring Factory parents two weeks before the class. A letter was also sent afterward, telling parents they could see the videos in question. The letter did not mention that the wrong video had been shown to a third-grade class.

As in other counties, a community advisory committee helped develop and put into effect the school program for Harford. The committeereviewed videos to be used in classes.

Meyers said that she and other parents who talked with her had been unaware of the use of videos in the classes, which made the unsettling scenes too vivid for someyoung minds.

"The problem is that real children are acting out the scenes and it's scary," she said. "If you want them to remember it,you show it. I understand that. What I'm saying is, have we done toomuch?"

Albert Seymour, a spokesman for the county schools, pointed out that the purpose of any instruction is for children to learn and remember the lessons.

But he said that parents have the option of removing their children from this particular class, and the material would be covered in an alternative manner. That option exists for several courses or programs involving sensitive topics, such as sexualeducation topics, he said.

Showing the wrong tape to third-graders was an honest mistake, said Meyers. But other defects in the program should be corrected to keep misunderstandings from happening. "We can make this program better," she said.

Seymour said that an advisory committee to the schools' guidance counselor director is to consider these suggestions raised by parents on the child-abuse program.

"I thought the school board was very receptive," Meyers said. "I think we will see things change."

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