Police continued their investigation Tuesday into shocking allegations that came to light on Sunday - that a 10-year-old girl in the coastal city of Ashdod was gang-raped by her peers over an extended period of time.
Detectives are currently checking claims that the girl was sexually violated by several minors with whom she had watched pornographic movies. They are also investigating whether any adults might have been involved.
Education Ministry officials Tuesday defended teachers at the girl's school, who have been publicly accused of neglect. The officials said the teachers promptly notified the proper authorities and acted in keeping with to ministry guidelines.
"When they first became aware of the case, the school immediately informed her parents, passed the information on to the city's welfare department and sought guidance from [ministry] supervisors," a ministry official said.
A team of psychologists came to the school Tuesday to speak to children who may have been affected by the incident.
Ministry officials said that the girl, who is currently in fifth grade, had been involved in several "unusual" sexual incidents, such as exposing herself in public. A psychologist and other staff members at the school had spoken regularly with the girl and been in touch with her family. In addition, the municipal welfare department had made inquiries to try to determine whether she was being abused at home. However, the ministry officials said, social workers failed to find any proof of misconduct by the girl's relatives.
The event that finally brought the alleged rapes to the knowledge of the authorities happened two weeks ago and outside the school's premises.
"When school staff first investigated the incident, all the students said the girl had initiated the sexual contact," a ministry official said. "The incidents occurred over a lengthy period and the whole case is currently being investigated, including the possibility that adults were involved."
Hila Segal, the Education Ministry official in charge of dealing with sexual abuse of students, said the alleged incident and others like it raise questions about society's standards for normal sexual behavior in children.
"Again and again, we encounter a discrepancy between what adults think of various sexual behaviors at a relatively early age, and the reality," she said Tuesday. "One must question adults' preconceptions [about sex]."
At this stage, she added, the ministry is not seeking "to define what normative sexual behavior is but to give the children legitimacy to talk about anything that bothers them."
According to ministry data, the number of children who sought psychological help as the victims of alleged sexual abuse rose last year. However, Segal said, the figures do not necessarily indicate a rise in the number of such incidents. Rather, she said, they probably reflect a growing awareness, and hence increased reporting, of sexual misconduct.
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