My gut told me something was wrong

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It was eleven years ago, but I can remember it like it was yesterday.  My daughter Jaiden was starting third-grade the next day and we walked to her school to find out which teacher and classroom she had. The school waited until the evening before school started to post which teacher the students had and then the teachers were available for a meet and greet in their classrooms. Jaiden loved school and was so excited to meet her new teacher and the friends she had missed all summer.   

Hundreds of kids were running around, laughing and squealing with delight as they found out who would be in their class. When we finally made our way through the huddle around the post, Jaiden was happy to see that she was assigned to Mr. Firth. He was one of the favorites at Pacific Rim Elementary. All the students loved him, and it seemed that all the parents loved him too. We felt lucky that she got him as a teacher.

We walked across campus until we found his room, way in the back, the last class in the corner. Jaiden immediately ran over to her friends. Her dad and I went up to the teacher to introduce ourselves.  Mr. Firth asked me why Jaiden’s picture wasn’t in the yearbook from the previous year. I explained that we had moved the year before and Jaiden changed schools over winter break, so she was in the yearbook at the other school. His question struck me as odd at the time, I couldn’t figure out why a teacher was looking up his students in the yearbook.

It appeared that other parents already knew Mr. Firth from older siblings that had his class previously. Those parents seemed thrilled their kid had Mr. Firth and I wanted to feel that way, but I had a nagging feeling in my gut.  I decided to keep my eye on him and everyday when I picked up Jaiden from school, I always asked about her day and her teacher. She always replied how much fun her teacher was.

The very next week, he molested Jaiden, in that same classroom. The school day had ended, and Jaiden wasn’t allowed to leave until she finished filling out her planner. The blinds were closed, the door was closed, and she was alone with him in the classroom, all in violation of school policies.

That day when her dad picked her up from school, Jaiden immediately told him what Mr. Firth had done. I had taught her to speak up from the time she was born if anyone had ever touched her inappropriately. I had been molested by my grandpa as a child and so I had the talk often with her that nobody was allowed to touch her if she didn’t want it or if it made her feel bad and that included myself, her dad, all family members, the doctor, friends, neighbors, strangers, nobody.

What I didn’t know at the time but have since learned, is how to spot red flags and grooming behaviors and to question everything EXCEPT my gut. Since the incident, I have studied and become certified in child sexual abuse prevention and now I teach prevention and bystander intervention to parents, schools, and youth-serving organizations. There were many red flags and opportunities for intervention had the school staff and parents been trained on what to look for and how to respond.

Grooming behaviors are how the predators get everyone around them to trust them. They are not just grooming the kids, they are grooming the adults, their bosses, their coworkers, the parents of their students, and single moms. They are often the favorite teacher or coach, trusted clergy, helpful volunteer, friendly neighbor. They are always there to help and make you feel grateful to have them in your life. They are someone’s dad, uncle, brother, grandpa. They may have kids of their own. They look like you and me. They are men and women, although more than 70% of molesters are male.

One night, Jaiden and I were at the grocery store and she asked if we could buy Mr. Firth a Chargers balloon. She said Mr. Firth was a Chargers fan (back when San Diego had a football team) and that anyone who brought in anything related to the Chargers, would get to move their clip (a reward system in class).  I thought nothing of it at the time and bought the balloon. What I know now is, he was testing us. This was a tiny step to see if we were people pleasers, not just Jaiden, but her parents - were we people pleasers? Step one of his grooming – test the parents.

Then one day in class, he rubbed Jaiden’s shoulders while the entire class was present. Jaiden later told me how uncomfortable it made her feel, but she didn’t say anything at the time. This is what grooming looks like. This seemingly innocent act was actually playing a significant role in the grooming process in many ways. First, he was testing Jaiden to see if she spoke up when he touched her, she did not, even though she didn’t like it. Second, he was testing the other students to see who would speak up if they noticed what he was doing. Third, he was sending a message to Jaiden. He was essentially saying, obviously this must be ok that I am touching you because I am doing it in front of the entire class and nobody is saying anything. When none of the other kids spoke up, Jaiden internalized the uncomfortableness and maybe even felt a little special because he was touching her and nobody else, even though she didn’t like it. Jaiden thought if it was wrong, surely someone would say something, but nobody did. Fourth, he was letting other potential victims see him rubbing Jaiden’s shoulders so that later on when he touched them they would think it was normal. Step two in his grooming – test Jaiden and the other students.

Mr. Firth had a rule that you had stay after class until you finished filling out your planner for the day. Planners are calendars that are given to students at the beginning of the school year so that they can be organized and write down what their homework is and any other instructions. Jaiden was very slow at this and was always the last one in the class. Step three in his grooming – create rules that give him access to be alone with students.

Less than two weeks into the school year, he had managed to speed through the grooming process and molest my daughter. Even the police couldn’t believe he had done it so soon into the school year. After studying child predators, I am not surprised at all. Children are their drug of choice. Even though predators can sometimes spend months or years grooming their victims, Mr. Firth probably had to go all summer without getting his fix and he was probably writhing with anticipation.

Looking back on his question as to why my daughter wasn’t in the yearbook, it was obviously an obscure question that made me wonder but my mind did not go to immediately to thinking he was a child molester and I doubt yours would either. This is also important to know about grooming. Grooming behaviors are also identical to behaviors that are perfectly innocent.

The odds are that you might never catch someone in the act of molesting a child, but you will catch them in the act of grooming, you will catch them crossing boundaries. If you take any one of those actions Mr. Firth did as a single action alone they can be perfectly innocent, they can represent the actions of great teachers. However, when you add them up AND you add my gut instinct that something about him was wrong, that was enough to question his behavior.

Years later, when I met with another mom whose daughter was molested by Mr. Firth she told me that the first time she met him the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She had no idea why either, so she just brushed it off. That is how minimizing works. You question yourself and believe others. We minimize what we see because we like people and want them to like us. This is backwards. Our bodies were designed to give us warning signals, our intuition or “gut feeling” is there to tell us to remove ourselves from a dangerous situation. We need to trust it and act on it. Question everything, except your gut! Teach your kids what their instincts are and how to use them. That is a skill that they will use for the rest of their lives in school, relationships, and careers. It may also save their life.