Elizabeth Smart didn’t talk about what happened to her for a long time after her kidnapping.
Smart, who was abducted as a child in Salt Lake City, is now an activist for child welfare and an author who advocates for victims of rape and abuse. On Tuesday she shared her story with hundreds of Idaho educators gathered in Meridian for safety and engagement summits hosted by the State Department of Education.
It wasn’t always easy for Smart to talk about what happened to her, she told educators. Her goal on Tuesday was to help them understand how a survivor of abuse feels – and give them some tips on how to respond if a student disclosed abuse to them.
“I would ask that, as you experience this in your classrooms…that you take it as something sacred. That you take it as a sacred trust,” Smart said. “Because it’s a big deal for a survivor to share what has happened to them.”
Smart was kidnapped from her bedroom in a Salt Lake City neighborhood in 2002 at the age of 14. For nine months she was held hostage, drugged and raped by a man named Brian David Mitchell and his wife Wanda Barzee. She was rescued on a public street in Utah after witnesses recognized her captors.
Even after rescue, trauma continues, Smart told educators. She told them how damaging it can be for a survivor to hear questions that might imply blame for their abuse, and suggested ways they could respond to survivors that turn to them for help.
“First thing I would tell you is just listen,” Smart said. “And don’t start any questions with ‘why didn’t you,’ because then that makes the victim only feel like ‘I didn’t do enough.”
Smart’s keynote speech was the centerpiece of two gatherings held by the State Department of Education at Wahooz Family Fun Zone in Meridian on Tuesday: a Family and Community Engagement conference and the department’s first ever Safety and Security Symposium.
State Superintendent of Education Sherri Ybarra told the hundreds of educators in attendance at Smart’s speech that student safety is her number one priority. She told the media afterward that she invited Smart to speak because her story touches on the importance of trauma informed teaching, one component of social emotional learning that Ybarra has established as a priority in her 2021 budget request. Her budget ask includes $1 million to train teachers to respond to student’s social and emotional needs.
“We want all of our educators and anybody who touches the life of a child to have all the resources and training available so we can stop incidences before they happen or …be sensitive to students so they can continue a normal life and be successful in school,” Ybarra said.
Smart said in an interview that school policies should create safe environments where students feel they can disclose abuse. Part of that is making sure adults like counselors and school resource officers build relationships with students and are approachable, rather than intimidating. Above all, if a student reports abuse, adults should believe them.
“Believe that child. Believe that kid who is telling you whatever it is they are telling you,” she said. “The next step is to make sure that they’re not going back home to an abusive situation.”
Renee McNally, a second grade teacher in the Moscow School District who came to Meridian for the engagement conference on Monday and Tuesday, said the conference and Smart’s talk renewed her focus on student needs outside the classroom. Students who on the surface level might display some kind of behavior issue in class could be grappling with something more serious outside of the school setting, for example.
“It brings the importance of taking care of the whole child back to the forefront of my mind,” she said.