COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – An Ohio bill requiring schools to teach K-12 students how to identify signs of sexual abuse is on its way to Gov. Mike DeWine.
Amended into an omnibus criminal justice bill, the Ohio House and Senate approved Erin’s Law last week to command schools under the state Department of Education’s purview – public, charter, and science, technology, engineering and math schools – to provide students developmentally appropriate instruction in sex abuse prevention.
“We really see prevention education as a central piece of our vision to see an Ohio that is free of sexual violence,” Emily Gemar, public policy director for the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said. “Erin’s Law is a central piece of that.”
Erin’s Law founder: Ohio ‘hardest state’ to pass bill
For Chicago native Erin Merryn, the namesake of the legislation, the passage of Erin’s Law was long overdue. Merryn shared with Ohio lawmakers – on three occasions in the past seven years – the sexual abuse she endured between the ages of 6 and 13, first perpetrated by a neighbor and later by an older cousin.
Yet without the knowledge to recognize she was violated, coupled with the fear of retaliation from her perpetrators, Merryn said she kept the abuse quiet until her 13th birthday.
“Instead, I turned to my little pink childhood diary and started to keep my secrets in the back of the diary: ‘Something happened last night, but I don’t know who to tell,’” Merryn told lawmakers in June. “And word after word, page after page, I described things my cousin was making me keep secret.”
Motivated by her belief that “no child should have to suffer like that,” Merryn has traveled across the U.S. to advocate for the school instruction of personal body safety and how to identify inappropriate sexual behavior, finding success in 37 states before her 38th legislative win in Ohio.
“Ohio finally did it,” Merryn said on social media. “Hardest state for me to pass it in.”
What will Ohio students learn under Erin’s Law?
Erin’s Law requires schools to teach students in kindergarten through sixth grade one hour of developmentally appropriate instruction in child sex abuse prevention each school year. For seventh through 12th graders, schools must teach about dating and sexual violence prevention.
An amendment added to the bill by Sen. Sandra O’Brien (R-Ashtabula) requires that law enforcement train teachers before they provide prevention instruction to students.
“That’s not going in and teaching children non-developmentally appropriate topics,” Gemar said. “It’s teaching about respect and bodily autonomy and having healthy relationships with people in all areas of your life.”
Although parents and legal guardians can request to opt their child out of the instruction, most Ohio parents support the provisions laid out under Erin’s Law.
A statewide survey released in August found that 87% of Ohio parents believe schools should provide age-appropriate sexual abuse prevention education to help students recognize signs of abuse, according to the Children’s Defense Fund of Ohio.
Merryn said schools already provide a slew of instruction in other topics, including suicide prevention education and Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.). Empowering students to recognize abuse and report it, she said, is a no-brainer way to keep kids safe.
“I knew the consequences of what drugs do, so I never so much as put a cigarette (in my mouth) or was an underage drinker,” Merryn said. “But where were the eight ways teaching us how to get away and tell? It never came, and unfortunately, it took finding out my little sister was being abused to end my abuse.”
There is one caveat to the bill: Instruction cannot be connected to any person or entity “that provides, promotes, counsels, or makes referrals for abortion or abortion-related services.” The last-minute amendment to prohibit abortion-related materials was proposed by O’Brien, who feared the potential for “grooming or losing the innocence of our children.”
The Center for Christian Virtue, a conservative advocacy group based in Columbus, also expressed concerns to lawmakers that imposing Erin’s Law could be used “as a vehicle to hyper sexualize and indoctrinate children.”
After O’Brien’s abortion-related amendment was added, CCV spokesperson Mike Andrews said “the proper guardrails were put in place to ensure that Ohio children can be informed and protected, without the influence of radical special interest groups.”
Rep. Brigid Kelly (D-Cincinnati), one of the primary sponsors of Erin’s Law, said that regardless of the amendments added to the legislation, she’s pleased child abuse survivors like Merryn won’t have to come to the Statehouse to relive their trauma.
“We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, because hopefully, this is going to make a positive impact on kids throughout the state,” Kelly said.