Once every month, a group of Mashpee Middle High School sophomores come together to learn about a serious topic affecting children.
These students are part of a Children’s Cove Teen TASK Force, a program that educates teenagers about the issue of child sexual abuse and the numerous resources available to any young person experiencing abuse.
Children’s Cove is the name given to the Cape & Islands Child Advocacy Center, a department of Barnstable County. The organization has been leading a Teen TASK (Taking A Stand for Kids) Force in different schools for three years as a way to connect with high-schoolers on the topic of sexual abuse. But the purpose of the program is not for its participants to keep this information to themselves: the goal is to empower them to share their knowledge with their peers and be resources for the school community.
“We want to really create these ambassadors, who are leaders, to know how to respond to situations and share information with their peers, and be able to… support their peers in getting help,” said Jacob Stapledon, the community education and outreach coordinator for Children’s Cove.
The program leaders also recognize that teenagers are likely to tell their peers about an instance of abuse before they talk to an adult. Based on his work, more than 50 percent of the time, teens will talk to other teens first, Mr. Stapledon said.
“They feel more comfortable, they feel more safe talking to their peers,” he said. The program aims to help raise awareness about child abuse issues in a way that will really attract their peers.
Children’s Cove first hosted a Teen TASK Force at Dennis-Yarmouth High School, and it has traveled to a different school each year since—first to Monomoy Regional High School and now to Mashpee Middle-High School.
Each month, the students probe different topics or hear presentations from people who work in the area of child abuse prevention, including staff from Children’s Cove and members of law enforcement. As part of the TASK Force program, students have also broken up into groups to launch their own awareness campaigns, which are designed to communicate what they have learned with the larger MMHS community.
According to Mr. Stapledon, the Children’s Cove staff like to tailor the program each year to what each school wants. He said MMHS principal Mark Balestracci was interested in ensuring that students are aware of the resources available in the school and in the community for anyone facing abuse.
Mashpee students on the Task Force began meeting in December, and now in April—which is sexual assault awareness month and child abuse prevention month—the students are getting ready to put in motion the awareness campaigns they have been developing.
Three groups are tackling different projects, all with the goal of communicating important information about abuse to children and families. One group made a PSA video, and another is crafting a social media scavenger hunt. Every day for one week, students will be given a task, such as sharing the PSA on their social media accounts or taking a Snapchat with someone they consider their “safe person.”
The third group is taking their newfound knowledge to parents: they’ll be giving a presentation at an upcoming parents’ night that will focus on how parents can talk to their children about these issues.
All participants in the Children’s Cove TASK Force are sophomores, which Mr. Stapledon said is an ideal age group, because the students have established themselves in the school community, but they’ll be sticking around for two more years. Children’s Cove has hosted its one-year program in three schools now, but Mr. Stapledon said the team is working to develop a continuing program that will allow students to continue meeting in future semesters.
Maggie Connolly, a TASK Force member who is working on the presentation for parents, said she was interested in joining the TASK Force because it relates to her career goals.
“I want to go into either criminal or social work, so it was kind of like a good opportunity to explore it,” she said.
Taylor Lacava, a fellow group member, likes the idea of being a resource for the community.
“I want to be able to help people that may need my help,” she said.
Child sexual abuse is a serious topic, and program staff members are aware that they’re having tough conversations with students. On Monday, for example, the students heard a presentation from a Massachusetts State Police Trooper who pursues cases of online sexual exploitation. He told them about cases he’s investigated, including a few involving perpetrators from Cape Cod.
“We start every session with self-care,” Mr. Stapledon said. “How are you doing? How have things been? We end every session with, how are you doing, how was that today?”
All student members of the TASK Force have access to the school guidance counselors as well as contact information for all Children’s Cove staff, and they can reach out to whomever they feel connected to. “We want to make sure that, as we’re providing this information, we understand how challenging it is,” Mr. Stapledon said.
As April gets rolling, students at MMHS can expect to see the results of their peers’ work over the past few months.
“It’s [child abuse] a topic that no one really wants to talk about,” said TASK Force member Ryan Hendricks, “We can talk to our peers about it.”