Protecting our Youth from Abuse, to Neglect, & Trafficking:
A Conversation with Youth Protection Advocate Carissa Coons

With the recent release of our product Protecting Our Youth, we’ve had many discussions with professionals on the importance of training that teaches skills in identifying, preventing, and reporting child abuse, neglect and childhood human trafficking. More specifically, we’ve created a robust training focused on the needs of educators and school staff. Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies have received a national estimate of 3.9 million total referrals of allegations of maltreatment, including child abuse and neglect. It’s been found that 17% of these reports have been made by education personnel, making it very important that school districts and higher education institutions enact training on this sensitive subject.

Recently, we spoke with Carissa Coons, Director of Youth Protection and Programming at the University of Southern California (USC) and subject matter expert for the development of Protecting Our Youth. Carissa began her career as a French teacher and a coach, teaching for several years before moving into international education where she focused on intercultural competency development. Her career then led her to work at an international organization where she helped oversee its youth protection efforts, including policy compliance in over 150 countries and the management of serious incidents involving minors participating in international youth programming.

More recently, she worked for the U.S. Center for SafeSport where she helped support the rollout of the 2022 Minor Athlete Abuse Prevention Policies (MAAPP). This all brought her to her current occupation at the Office of Youth Protection and Programming at USC where her office serves as a centralized resource for the university on matters related to safeguarding minors. In her free time, Carissa volunteers for a rape crisis center in her area working primarily with child survivors in the ER in the immediate wake of their trauma.

Continue reading for more insight from Carissa on the development of Protecting Our Youth and the importance of this training for educators, faculty, and staff.

How did your professional experience help shape your collaboration on this product?

“It was helpful to have an educational background knowing that there will be so many education professionals using this simulation. I’ve also worked in youth protection in a variety of roles and gained many different perspectives, especially from working with child survivors directly, that I was able to bring to the table. I think that was especially important when thinking about how sensitive some of these topics are for both children and education professionals alike, as it helped me provide input on how to carefully shape those conversations in the simulation.”

Why is it important for a product like Protecting Our Youth to be available to educators?

“There are many reasons. I think back to my teacher training and to when I was serving as a teacher; surprisingly, I was never really given any specific training on how to handle these difficult conversations – and if I did receive it, I don’t remember which tells me it couldn’t have been too meaningful! Unfortunately, sometimes people in the most critical roles are not well-trained on how to navigate these delicate situations. Some may receive brief training, but as an education professional, let’s be honest, there are a lot of competing priorities and we’re constantly going through different trainings. So being able to go through a course or simulation like this and really practice having these conversations is so important and helps with retaining information. I know personally that I would have felt more equipped at the time if I had been able to access a product like Protecting Our Youth.

If someone is starting out in their teaching career for example, and didn’t receive great training prior to jumping into an educator position – or even a student teaching position – the learn-as-you-go method can be very overwhelming, hoping you’re doing or saying the right things in the moment. We know that how we react in those moments can have a significant impact on a child and what happens next. Practicing conversations like this builds confidence, and it’s reassuring to know you’re holding a conversation with a child in a way that is less likely to negatively impact them.”

Why is it important that educators and staff receive this kind of training?

“Aside from their parents, guardians, caretakers, and siblings, educators are with these children all day – sometimes more than their own family. They are so important to a child’s life. Children really rely on that stability and support that a teacher or educator can provide, and so it is realistic that they may choose to open up to an educator, to their teacher, and have these conversations. They are probably the most important people to know how to have them.”

What is the #1 skill that this product teaches about this sensitive topic that educators and staff might not already know?

“I think this product teaches educators and staff confidence. The confidence to really help them feel equipped to navigate through these difficult discussions and to provide students with the empathy, compassion, and resources that they need.”

How does this product aim to help students who may be experiencing child abuse, neglect, or trafficking?

“When it comes to students who are experiencing traumatic events like abuse, neglect or human trafficking, there are so many barriers to reporting and disclosing what they are going through. This product helps educators and staff pick up on the signs that a child may be at-risk or currently being harmed, and helps them to figure out how to refer them to the right place so that another professional can help. It really helps provide educators with techniques to get through some of the barriers and help provide or connect them with the support they may need.”

What sets this product apart from others?

“I really think it’s the practice of having these conversations. The practice-based scenarios where you are able to choose what to say, undo something if it was the wrong thing to say, and learn how to better handle the situation. These are very sensitive topics, so it’s important to practice these conversations. If a situation does come up where abuse or neglect of a student is suspected, you know exactly what the best way to handle it is without causing further harm. Many courses will provide you the content, but in the moment it’s hard to recollect a checklist. You do, however, often remember information related to experiences and conversations. That’s what really sets this product apart from others.”

Learn More About Protecting Our Youth

Students are more likely to seek help, report abuse, and connect with support if they feel they have a trusted adult to confide in. The conversation strategies conveyed in Protecting Our Youth promote trusted connections, help-seeking, reporting, and referring to appropriate resources. Learn more about bringing this product to your district or university by contacting us or experiencing an interactive demo.

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