Advocates pushing for ‘tough conversations’ after Kokomo after-school worker fired

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KOKOMO, Ind—The Kokomo School Corporation voted on Monday to terminate the contract of a part-time after school program worker James Michael Puett.

The move came after the Miami County Sheriff’s Department arrested Puett for being sexually involved with a Miami County teenager.

According to the department, Puett sent sexually explicit messages to a 15-year-old over social media and traveled to a residence in Miami County, on one or more occasions, where he allegedly engaged in sexual activity with the teen. He’s facing charges of sexual misconduct with a minor and child solicitation.

Child advocates and the Indiana Department of Education say this latest example of what is a nationwide problem highlighting the need for parents to talk to, and educate their children on the dangers of sexual predators in their schools.

Sandy Runkle-DeLorm, the director of programs for Prevent Child Abuse Indiana, says its important to start having those types of conversations with children at an early age.

“The earlier the better. You don’t want to wait until they’re even in school before you’re having these conversations,” she said.

Runkle says topics such as inappropriate contact, body parts, and parent/child communication are good starting points. As the child ages, she says the conversation should become more “sophisticated”.

“Explaining that if someone tells them to keep a secret, there’s a difference between a secret and a surprise.  If someone’s telling them to keep a secret, especially an adult, that’s something you’re going to want to tell mommy or daddy. It’s not like you have to say ok at school these things may happen, you’re just talking in general because it may happen in another setting like that or some other youth serving organization,” Runkle-DeLorm said.

In March, the Indiana Department of Education along with the Department of Justice and the Indiana State Police released a 12 minute video about how to address and spot warning signs of child exploitation.

IDOE Staff attorney Kelly Bauder says it’s something the department wants every school district needs to address.

“And our hope is we can educate school officials on what to look for. Generally speaking predators are going to give attention, affection, and gifts. Look for those things,” she said.

Bauder says schools and parents  can also help to establish hard line social media and cell phone use rules. Recommending that a “zero use policy” between teachers, staff and students is likely the best policy.

“I think it kind of comes down to what’s a slippery slope of activity,” she said.

Both Runkle-DeLorm and Bauder say teaching kids to identify inappropriate activity at an early age is important and can help cut down on predatory incidents throughout the state.

While both also agree that kids shouldn’t be scared of their school experience, they do advocate for children being informed and prepared for any potential threats.

To view the video released by the IDOE, IDOJ and ISP, you can click here.

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