Demand for sexual abuse awareness in schools growing
(Calif.) In 1992, six-year-old Erin Merryn was held down and raped by a neighbor, who continued to abuse her for a year and a-half – threatening her into silence.
A family move ended the abuse but when she was 11, it started again, this time at the hands of a family member, who also used threats to keep her quiet.
Not until she was 13 and found out that her younger sister was also being abused did Merryn find the courage to speak up. But her voice has since helped carry eponymous legislation in her home state of Illinois that requires age-appropriate lessons in school on sexual abuse awareness for K-12 students.
Between 2011 and this year, 18 more states have enacted statutes modeled after Erin’s Law, and 19 others are considering it, including California, where legislators this week sent a bill to the Senate for a final vote.
“AB 2016 is a bill that I believe would help our children receive critical information so that they will not feel that they cannot tell someone, and they understand that no one can harm the people they love if they say no,” author Assemblywoman Nora Campos testified Wednesday before Senate Education Committee members. “I believe our education system can help guide our children in what’s right and wrong.”
According to national statistics, one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually molested before they turn 18 – the vast majority of the time, 93 percent, by someone they already know. It is estimated that 3 million American children are currently victims of sexual abuse.
“I was educated with my classmates on tornado drills, fire drills, bus drills, stranger danger, and learned the 8 ways to say ‘NO’ to drugs through D.A.R.E.,” Merryn wrote on her website, dedicated to her cause of seeing sexual abuse awareness curriculum laws adopted in all 50 states. “Where was the drill on how to escape a child molester? Where was the lesson plan on sexual abuse, safe/unsafe touches, and safe/unsafe secrets? It never came.”
Erin’s law, according to Merryn, gives children “the voice I never had as a child” by educating elementary school students and training school personnel to respond to signs and reports of abuse.
Similarly, the California proposal would require that the state’s next revision of its K-12 health education standards – estimated by legislative staff to be 2018 – include sexual abuse and sexual assault awareness prevention. It also requires information on counseling and resources for children who have been sexually abused be made available.
Merryn, in an email to Cabinet Report, said sex abuse and assault prevention curriculum varies state to state, but that a list of successful, research-based prevention programs is available on her Erin’s Law website as are as other resources such as short animated films (My Body Belongs to Me) and books (The Right Touch; I Said No!).
The lessons, she said, are designed to teach youngsters the “difference between safe and unsafe touches, safe and unsafe secrets” and that if anyone touches them in a private area they should “tell an adult immediately.”
In California, as in most of the states passing this type of legislation, parents would have the ability to opt out if they wish their child to be exempt from the lesson.
Merryn, now 29, married and expecting her first child any day, has traveled the country, testifying on behalf of legislation she helped prompt. She has written several books on her childhood experiences and been featured in many newspaper and online articles, as well as several national television programs, including the Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN and Good Morning America. She was also named Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year in 2012 and in People Magazine’s 2013 Heroes Among Us edition.
“I know from my personal experience that abusers tell their victims to stay silent,” Merryn has written in letters to state legislators. “If we don't talk about abuse, we give all of the power to the perpetrator.”