ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Many families of current and former students at Iditarod Elementary School in Wasilla are questioning if their children could have been harmed by fourth grade teacher Lukis Nighswonger.
Nighswonger, a longtime teacher at the school, is under arrest, accused of touching students in his classroom during the school day -- accusations he's admitted to.
Below, child and family advocates offer tips for parents on how to start the conversation, and where to turn if you want more help.
Tip #1 - Don't be fooled
"Ninety percent of children who have been sexually abused know the person who abused them. These are usually people that have ingrained themselves in their lives and also their family's lives. They become sort of a part of the family. They are a trusted adult," said Lindsay Prunella, project coordinator with ROCK Mat-Su, an organization that works to prevent child maltreatment.
Nighswonger was a popular teacher and cross country coach, someone students wanted to have as a teacher and with him, parents had high regard. In 2015 he won one of the highly competitive BP Teachers of Excellence awards.
Often, child sexual abusers are people families may least expect.
"It's really hard to tell. When it is found out people often feel incredibly betrayed and they are grieving the loss of this person they thought they knew, who is now this completely different person," Prunella said.
Tip #2 - Be calm and reassuring
"If you find yourself in a situation where your child has disclosed to you, you're going to want to remain very calm. You're going to want to ask more open-ended questions. You're going to want to reassure them that they are doing the right thing to tell you. You can say, 'it's okay you can tell me.' You can say, 'you didn't do anything wrong,' " Prunella said. "You don't want the child to pick up on any judgments that you might have because then they might think they did something wrong or that they shouldn't have told or something along that line."
Tip #3 - If you're worried about Mr. Nighswonger
If your child is a past or current student of Mr. Nighswonger's, or attends school at Iditarod Elementary, it may help to reference the situation unfolding there.
Use as a point of reference the school district's good touch / bad touch curriculum (and maybe your own family's) that starts when children are young, and gets more involved when they are old enough for Growth and Human Development classes.
"Let them know that this individual may have participated in bad touch and harmed children and did he ever make you feel like he might have been doing bad touch. I think that that's the way that I would navigate that conversation as a parent," said Monica Goyette, superintendent of the Mat-Su School District.
#4 Ask open-ended questions
"You want to make sure that your conversations are age-appropriate. That they are open-ended. You are talking about bodies and sex and boundaries. And this is a conversation that you are going to have throughout their lifetime, so it will evolve as they get older," Prunella said.
"As you're having a conversation with your child if your child says something that sounds like they've disclosed something, that there was touching that happened, or a boundary that was crossed, continue to ask those open-ended questions: 'Tell me what happened? What happened next?' " Prunella said. "Throughout that process reassure them that they did nothing wrong, and that it's really important and really good that they told you."
#5 - Don't become an armchair detective
The role of the parent is to be a trusted adult, someone sage a child can confide in and know that whatever needs to happen next, adults will take care of it. In this case, investigative questions need to come from the Office of Children's Services or the police department, Prunella said.
It's important that children don't have to tell and re-tell details about what happened to them, and that when information comes out, it's carefully gathered and listened to -- something best left to the experts.
#6 - Report suspected harm
If you suspect harm, report it to the Office of Children's Services by calling 1-800-478-4444. You may also email the department at ReportChildAbuse@alaska.gov.
Families with concerns specific to Lukis Nighswonger may contact the Wasilla Police Department at (907) 352-5418 or via email at DBennett@ci.wasilla.ak.us.
#7 - Extra links and reading
Links to additional resources appear to the side of this article.