Thursday February 23, 2012

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The victims in more than half of reported sex crimes in Bennington County over the past two years suffer from disabilities, and this has spurred a collaborative group of advocates to seek funding to educate this vulnerable population.

Over 50 percent

Deputy State's Attorney Christina Rainville is spearheading the application process to secure up to $500,000 over three years from the U.S. Department of Justice. Area schools and the Bennington County Child Advocacy Center are also joining in the application process.

If the county receives the highly competitive grant, Rainville said the funds would be used to hire special educators to develop a curriculum and educate teens and adults with disabilities about sexual abuse.

Two years ago the state's attorney's office started tracking the number of sex crime victims with disabilities after believing the number was disproportionally high for years.

"It's well over 50 percent," said Rainville, who prosecutes sex crimes in the county.

The numbers are even more alarming when it comes to male victims. "Nearly 100 percent of boys and men who have been victims in these cases in the last five years have had disabilities," she said.

"When I meet with these children the thing that always overwhelms me is every single one says I didn't know what to do," Rainville told the Arlington School District board last week as she sought the district's partnership.


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"So we started thinking we'd like to have a program where we could educate our children with disabilities in the county before the crimes happen. We have great systems in place to educate them afterwards. We have counselors who teach them what to do and how to avoid these situations, (but) we want to teach them before."

"These kids know what to do if there's a fire. If I ask them ‘what do you do if there's a fire? They say ‘oh, you call 911, you leave the building.' They know it down pat. We can teach them to say no, to get out of the room and to tell. That's the basic skills we want to (teach)," Rainville said.

In recognition that school districts are financially strapped, Rainville has been in search of grants so the sex crime education can be brought to schools at no cost to taxpayers.

Arlington and Manchester Elementary/Middle School both agreed to partner in the application process, and Rainville said she also expects to ask Mount Anthony Union middle and high schools and some agencies that serve adults with disabilities before the application deadline next month. The grant must be used to educate individuals older than 13.

Rainville is relying on partnering schools to help with the application process because teachers are most aware of what resources and time commitments will be needed for students to absorb the information.

"Our hope is we'll apply with four or five schools ... get the grant and over a three-year period expand the program so it includes every school in the county," she said.

Arlington Memorial Middle and High School Principal Kerry Csizmesia called the effort "long overdue and welcomed," and the school board showed similar support.

Chairman Todd Wilkins, who works in the special victims unit of the Vermont State Police in Rutland, said the majority of victims he sees have special needs.

"It's a significant problem. One of the biggest issues we face is these kids knowing what consent is and knowing when to say no," Wilkins said. "There's a significant lack of education and I think it's our jobs to enforce that and teach it."

Recipients for the grant will be announced in May. Rainville said even if this effort is unsuccessful she will continue seeking funds to support educational programs in schools.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com