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Alaska lawmakers should put politics aside, pass Erin's Law

Many issues that come before the Alaska Legislature spark lively conversations. Our vast and diverse state is filled with people of varied opinions and perspectives. We talk about politics, education, oil taxes, fishing and many other matters important to Alaskans for different reasons.

While there are plenty of issues on which we might disagree and debate, there are a few bedrock principles where we find consensus. Keeping our children safe is one of those guiding principles and uniform goals, but it is clear that Alaska has a lot of work to do on child safety.

Our child sexual abuse statistics are both alarming and appalling. In 2013, 2,296 allegations of child sexual abuse were received by the Office of Children's Services, and the trend looks to be heading in the wrong direction.

To combat this epidemic, four legislators, two Republicans and two Democrats, introduced versions of a bill popularly known as "Erin's Law" this session. Named for child sexual abuse survivor Erin Merryn, whose life's work is to pass the law in all 50 states, the law would require school districts to develop and implement an age-appropriate sexual abuse and assault awareness and prevention education for students grades K-12. A common-sense concept that would help protect children with little or no cost, Erin's Law passed the Alaska Senate unanimously in 2014. However, despite the widespread bipartisan support, it fell victim to time and died on the final day of session.

This is a national movement, with 21 states already enacting some version of Erin's Law. We are committed to making Alaska the 22nd and have another opportunity to do so with the governor including Erin's Law on his special session call.

This year we heard from school districts expressing concern with implementation costs. Alaska provides funds, as we should, for "stop, drop and roll" training, teaching children how to respond if they find themselves or their clothing on fire. Unfortunately Alaska children are much more likely to be sexually abused at home then to encounter a fire.

While we can't afford not to pass Erin's Law, in the current tight fiscal climate, we are sensitive to financially burdening our school districts, so we worked with them to find savings in other areas and make implementation as cost-effective as possible, by involving the Department of Education in researching and recommending curricula, making it available through their website and by encouraging them to develop a Web-based training program for teachers.

Also, community partners like the Rasmuson Foundation, Alaska Children's Trust, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault have all expressed support and a strong desire to be a part of implementing this important law. Rasmuson Foundation has even indicated they could provide financial support to help with training and purchasing curriculum. Through these strong community partnerships we can work together to end the silent epidemic of child sexual abuse that is hurting our state.

Last month alone there were almost 300 reports of child sex abuse. We can continue to wring our hands about this disturbing issue, or we can act right now and empower our children with personal body safety information so they know how to recognize inappropriate behavior, set boundaries for themselves and turn to a trusted adult for help. We can let them know they are not alone and do not have to suffer in silence. We can pass Erin's Law during this special session.

Please contact your legislators and tell them Alaska's children can't wait any longer, to pass Erin's Law promptly and give it to the governor for signature. ?

Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, represents District I in the state Senate; Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, represents District L; and Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, represents District 19, in the state House of Representatives.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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