JUNEAU -- The House Education Committee heard emotional testimony Friday from Erin Merryn, a sexual abuse survivor from Elgin, Ill., then quickly approved "Erin's Law," a bill that would require public schools to teach students how to resist and report sexual abuse, especially from family members or friends.
The bill, House Bill 233, was introduced in January by Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, and has picked up broad, bipartisan support. After testimony in favor of the bill by educators, victim advocates, a former prosecutor and the head of the National Education Association in Alaska, the bill moved without dissent from the Education Committee to the House Finance Committee.
All seven members of the education committee recommended "do pass."
Merryn, who is six months pregnant, has been traveling the country in support of similar measures, describing her campaign as her way of resolving her own history of sexual abuse by a family friend and then a relative, and helping others in similar situations. As a child, she said, she exhibited signs of sexual abuse, including eating disorders and self-destructive behavior, but didn't speak out until she learned her younger sister was her abuser's next target.
"Erin's Law" first passed in her home state of Illinois in 2013 and has since become law in 11 other states. She said bills are pending in 26 states, including Alaska.
Testifying without notes, Merryn said schools already take on social, safety and personal issues, giving students skills on how to "say no" to drugs, how to respond in an earthquake, and how to avoid strangers with candy. Holding up her original D.A.R.E. card with advice for resisting drugs, she said was never instructed on how to deal with the ongoing sexual abuse of a family member who threatened her if she told.
"The only advice I got as a kid was to stay silent and listen to my perpetrator," Merryn said. "They don't talk in school about the people you know and trust that can hurt you."
Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, said children need to hear a message that goes beyond "beware of strangers."
"It's not the bogeyman coming out in the middle of the night, it's someone you think is a friend," LeDoux said.
The bill, supported by the Parnell administration, would direct school districts to adopt mandatory, age-appropriate training programs for children, parents and staff to teach abuse resistance and reporting and how to recognize warning signs like those exhibited by Merryn. Teachers are already required to report abuse when they encounter it, but the measure would go further to empower students themselves.
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 500-7388.
By RICHARD MAUER