December 21, 2014

Editor's Page

Kid Stuff

Mark R. Howard | 1/1/2011

Mark Howard
Mark Howard,
Executive Editor

When Monique Burr of Jacksonville died in a car accident in California in October 1996, she was survived by her husband, Ed, two young sons and her own budding legacy as a child advocate. In Jacksonville, she had served on the Mayor's
Commission on Children and founded the PALS Center, the first licensed pediatric care facility for children in northeast Florida who need 24-hour medical care.

A year after his wife's death, Ed Burr, founder and principal of real estate development firm GreenPointe Holdings, established a foundation in her name, concentrating its efforts on children's well-being. It's a modest enterprise, operating from an endowment that's grown to around $2 million. Burr says he always expected the foundation's work would remain focused largely in northeast Florida, but events are widening its scope — to the benefit of the state's children.

With a still-mediocre education system and a poor level of support and services for children and families, Florida can be a lousy, dangerous place to be a kid. In 2008, the state had more than 370,000 investigated incidents of child abuse and neglect. Our state's rate of maltreatment-related fatalities — 4.62 per 100,000 children — is the second-highest in the country, nearly twice the national average.

One of the Monique Burr Foundation for Children's early initiatives was working with guidance counselors, principals and teachers to introduce a curriculum in Duval County schools called "Good Touch Bad Touch." The short instructional sessions focus on teaching children how to recognize sexual overtures from adults and how to respond. By 2009, the foundation's facilitators had taken the program, on its own dime, to all but two of Duval County's 107 elementary schools and several schools in the Tampa Bay area. Last year, the curriculum reached 25,000 kids.

Meanwhile, as the foundation's effort grew, the Legislature in 2007 tinkered with Statute 39, the state law that focuses on child protection and welfare. One change requires a comprehensive child safety curriculum in place in the state's schools by 2015. The law created a group — including representatives from a number of state agencies and non-profits — to develop standards for how the curriculum would address child abuse, neglect and abandonment.

Called the Education Cooperative Planning Team, the group met for two years but hadn't found a comprehensive curriculum that met the law's requirements. Meanwhile, the Monique Burr Foundation realized that the requirement for a comprehensive curriculum meant it would have to upgrade its Good Touch Bad Touch curriculum. Working with a national group called Childhelp, the foundation developed a broader curriculum encompassing more than just protecting kids from sexual abuse, and then took it to the state's planning team to see if it would pass muster.

The planning team was impressed enough with the foundation's work that it authorized a pilot program. The foundation's pilot had trial runs, under the name "Speak Up Be Safe," in several first-, third- and fifth-grade classrooms in Duval and Pasco counties in December and will formally debut this month. A curriculum for second, fourth and sixth grades is in the works.

For the schools that choose it, the curriculum won't be a burden on teachers. The first-grade curriculum, for example, consists of two 25-minute sessions. For the third grade, there are two 30-minute lessons. Instruction at each grade level involves information and teaching strategies appropriate for that grade — the first-grade lessons are very activity-based, for example. The span of the curriculum encompasses the entire range of child safety, including internet pornography, physical and cyber-bullying, sexual abuse and neglect.

The curriculum is also notable for its emphasis on providing parents and caregivers with both information and suggestions that will keep them empowered and in an authoritative role in their children's lives. "These are difficult subjects for parents," says Lynn Layton, the foundation's executive director. "They want to take care of their own in providing guidance but often don't know how, and the ones who suffer are the kids." Letters go home informing parents of the concepts and strategies that their children have learned. "Sometimes, a one-page information sheet on how to have certain conversations can leave the parent in charge," says Layton.

The curriculum builds awareness of safety-related topics among children, she adds, but sends a consistent message that it's adults' responsibility to keep children safe, not the children's themselves. You can see the curriculum materials by going to moniqueburrfoundation.org/resources.html.

Development of Speak Up Be Safe didn't cost the state a dime. The state planning team can't mandate that schools use any specific program to meet the 2015 deadline for having a curriculum in place, but right now there are no others that are as comprehensive as the foundation's, which is consistent with both Statute 39 and the Sunshine State standards for schools. The foundation's curriculum is also the one being offered free to the schools. Some other curricula may emerge, but in the meantime Layton is working hard to sell as many districts as possible on Speak Up Be Safe by 2015. Newly elected Gov. Rick Scott's education transition group would do well to take notice.

In becoming the fulfillment source for a statewide mandate, the non-profit foundation sets a great example. With traditional government funding increasingly pinched, the efforts of non-profits are not just welcome, but necessary if government is to meet its obligation to the state's citizens.

"It's a collaborative effort to address a need we've ignored in the state for years," says Burr. And a fitting legacy for his late wife, who didn't live to see her own sons grow up healthy and safe.

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Tags: Editor's column, Education

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