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Former NHLer and sexual abuse victim Sheldon Kennedy opens the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre for children, youth and families affected by child abuse in Calgary, Alta., on May 23, 2013.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Schools in Calgary are the first to get a toolkit aimed at helping educators across the country recognize child abuse.

The toolkit was developed by the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre to support teachers and school staff who are often on the front line of reporting cases of child abuse.

Kennedy, a former NHL player who was abused by his junior hockey coach Graham James, has become an outspoken advocate for victims of abuse.

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The idea came after a survey found school staff weren't always confident dealing with and reporting suspected cases of sexual or physical abuse.

"A teacher is our first line of defence. Schools are safe havens for children," Sara Austin, CEO of the Sheldon Kennedy centre, said Thursday.

"It's where kids spend most of their waking hours every single day and teachers may often be the first person that a child discloses to. They're a safe, trusted person in a child's life."

The toolkit helps people identify signs of abuse, suggests ways to support children who may disclose abuse and explains how to report it to authorities. It also includes a video and discussion guide that school staff can use.

"It's your legal responsibility to report," Kennedy says in the video. "It is so important to take action if you suspect anything. You could be the difference in a child's life."

It also includes a message from a Calgary police detective who investigates child abuse crimes.

"It might seem insignificant but that might be the piece of the puzzle we need to get an investigation going," says Det. Mark Weir.

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"Sometimes with kids, when they get out of the home, this is really the first interaction they will have with adults other than family members. This might be that next trusting relationship they have."

Austin said the toolkit will be used at Calgary's public and Catholic schools and is being made available to others across the country.

"We've reached out to all of the different provinces," she said. "Anybody who works with kids should be using a tool like this."

The chief superintendent of the Calgary Catholic School Board said it is sometimes difficult for a teacher to bring suspicions forward.

"It's a difficult decision for anybody. You create a relationship with a child. You may know their parents. They may be telling you about their parents or a trusted family member and it's hard for anybody," said Gary Strother.

"Teachers certainly take on a big role and, a lot of times, the six hours that kid is in front of them is the best six hours of their day. That's why sometimes they come to us as opposed to other people."

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Strother said the program is in the hands of school superintendents across the country, who are to determine if it is possible to adapt it for their jurisdictions.

The Globe and Mail's features writer Erin Anderssen talks about her ten-year journey covering mental health stories in Canada and how the national conversation has gone from stigma to solutions. This video is part of The Globe - WE Learning Hub.
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