Jokes exchanged between comrades as the sign-in sheet passed around the room. But that tone changed the moment the video began.
Officers dressed in their uniforms equipped with weaponry belts silenced their radios and watched intently as victims of childhood sexual abuse told their stories. These officers are part of a training the High Point Police Department has incorporated into its curriculum. From an awareness program targeted at parents and community members, Darkness to Light has transformed into a training for law enforcement.
The Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children program in High Point began in September of last year through the YMCA, with Patti Marlowe as the director. Marlowe became an activist after learning that her ex-husband sexually abused her daughter for more than six years. She’s now the program’s coordinator at the Y.
Darkness to Light is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention of childhood sexual abuse. Along with Marlowe and the Y’s CEO, David Ozmore, the organization has trained more than 3,000 facilitators. And that number continues to rise.
Lt. Kevin Ray of the police department’s Violent Crimes Unit is working on incorporating the program into the department’s permanent new and annual officer training routines. Ray facilitated the department’s second training last week, which taught officials ranging from school resource officers, lieutenants, captains and officers from the High Point Housing Authority to members of the Department of Social Services and County Attorney Rob Brown.
The program also is offered to the general public.
Ray said he became passionate about the program after he met with Ozmore and a representative from the Child Advocacy Center in High Point to find out what the program was all about.
After attending the training, Ray decided that the program could be used as a way to train officers to recognize and deal with the problem of child abuse on the front end, rather than responding to it once the damage has been done.
When officers respond to different types of complaints, their focus is on contacting the complainant or victim, getting the information they need to file a report and then going on the next call. Most officers rarely interact with children that may be on scene unless the complaint directly involves the children, Ray said.
“So fatherhood and this training has changed my approach to these things,” Ray said. “We usually turn our defense mechanisms on, whatever the terrible or bad stuff that we see, we’ve cut that little shield on. We don’t want to cut it on so far that we miss a child trying to tell us something. So, I think this is a great training for the officers.”
The training consists of two 35-minute videos recounting the stories told by multiple victims of childhood sexual abuse followed by a 5-minute discussion among the class. Each video elaborated on how to recognize the signs of abuse, as well as prevention and intervention.
Officer Ryan Mizell from the High Point Housing Authority unit works daily with children from the Boys and Girls Club and notices how some children may branch off from the group of volunteers “to go do their own thing.” He said the training will make it easier for him to understand and protect the children he encounters while patrolling the neighborhood.
“The Carson Stout Boys and Girls Club is down there, and it’s elementary all the way through high school,” Mizell said. “The guy who runs it, he does a great job, but it’s just him. I think it would be good for him and the volunteers to come and sit in, because they may recognize the signs. Some of the cues and signs I learned, I didn’t really know about.”
SROs Matthew Truitt and Riley Edwards both signed up to become facilitators after the training. Working with children and teens at Welborn Middle School and Andrews High makes the training all the more valuable, they said.
Truitt called the training “a real eye-opener.”
“It’s just little things that you miss and you don’t even think about, but yet there are obvious signs, they’re right in front of you and you don’t even see it,” Truitt said.
Looking back on interactions with students, he admits there may have been times when something was amiss, but he didn’t have the knowledge to recognize when the student may be crying out for help.
“Like their interaction when they’re starting in on a conversation,” he said. “Sometimes it can be loud in the hallways and sometimes they want to come up and tell you something that’s very important to them and you can get real close to them, put your hand on their shoulder or something, and they’ll tense up. Now I’m thinking, well maybe this is an obvious sign. It wasn’t so obvious to me then, but now it could be.”
Both Truitt and Edwards agreed the training has changed their outlook.
“I’ll definitely look at things a little bit differently, the way kids are acting, how they approach me. And my responses to them, I think that’ll be a lot different,” Edwards said.