Nearly any elementary-age student knows the phrase “stranger danger,” but that awareness is part of the purpose of personal safety programs.

This week, first- and fourth-grade students at Windom Elementary School are participating in the Personal Safety Awareness Program, facilitated by Horizons Mental Health Center in Hutchinson.

“We see anywhere from 12 to 18 children a year who have disclosed their abuse and have seen the outcome of that. Intervention is only part of it; we also want to prevent it,” said Jane Holzrichter, director of the Child Advocacy Center and Prevention Services at Horizons. “We want these children to know what to do to keep a situation from escalating or to remove themselves from something before it becomes a situation.”

The PSAP started in 1983 in Reno County schools and has since been presented to more than 85 school districts in Kansas and schools in five other states. More than 180,000 children have gone through the program.

The purpose of the program is twofold, to teach children the skills to protect themselves from assault or abuse, but also the importance of reporting it if a situation occurs.

Jon Paden, principal at Windom Elementary School, explained that the awareness portion of the program can start important conversations.

“It’s age appropriate, so the discussion they have at the fourth-grade level is a little different than the first-grade,” Paden said. “What we really hope is that this is preventative. If kids know what they can address in personal safety, like what to do if a stranger talks to them, then they know how to get out of those situations before they even start.”

The primary goal is to prevent abuse altogether, but when it does occur, adults like Holzrichter hope children feel comfortable enough to report it.

“Even kids in the first grade know what it means when a situation doesn’t seem right. One of the outcomes of the program is that we’ve been able to reduce the average age a child discloses at to age 6 or 7. The national average is 9 or 10,” Holzrichter said. “That’s a huge outcome because they’re not enduring harm during that time.”

The program consists of four lessons over the course of two weeks, two lessons taught by the classroom teacher, two taught by resource speakers from law enforcement and social service agencies.

The purpose of having several lessons over a short period is for repetition.

“That repetitive nature helps us break down these barriers so children can talk about these situations. We’re also giving them knowledge so they know what to do with this information,” Holzrichter said. “I recently had a girl walk through my door who had been sexually abused and she told me that she didn’t know what to do, but she just heard over and over that she needed to tell someone, even if it was caused by someone she knew and cared about. We were able to stop the abuse and give her the strength to tell because of the program.”

A national piece of legislation on child abuse awareness and prevention, called Erin’s Law, is entering the Kansas Senate Ways and Means Committee this week. A majority of states have already accepted and implemented the legislation requiring education similar to the PSAP, which Holzrichter approves with some reservation.

“I’m glad the state is acknowledging that we need to do more. This law helps adults understand that this is a very serious subject, but teaching this heavy, complicated subject in one hour, I fear, will bring more fear,” Holzrichter said. “We’d tell children that they need to report abuse, but that’s the end of the conversation. That’s not enough for them to be able to comprehend and trust the people telling them that.”

Instead, Holzrichter asked to sit on the committee who looks at the curriculum so she can contribute to a statewide program with the positive outcomes like the PSAP.

According to the Personal Safety Awareness Program website, children who are assaulted are most likely to tell their teachers over anyone else. This is part of the reason why classroom teachers remain a key element of the PSAP.

Students at Windom Elementary School will hear from Holzrichter and Capt. Doug Anderson from the McPherson County Sheriff's Office.

“Any time we can get a police officer in to talk with the kids is a good thing. They have a different perspective in their lesson than the teacher would. They can share things that they would normally become involved with, and the same for the Horizons representative,” Paden said. “If there are situations that occur with a child, these are the types of people who would be involved. Part of the deal is to build some rapport with students in the school building through these conversations.”