Senator's riders likely to sink Erin's Law and block Alaska child abuse prevention

The Alaska Legislature is halfway through a special 2015 session to take up unfinished business, including the Alaska Safe Children's Act (House Bill 44). Also known as Erin's Law, the original HB 44 is a smart piece of legislation that would bring sexual assault awareness and prevention education to all students in Alaska who desperately need access to information to protect themselves.

However, not everyone agrees. This week, Sen. Mike Dunleavy and the state Senate Education Committee did all they could to stop HB 44 and put sexual assault survivors at risk in Alaska.

The need for the Alaska Safe Children's Act is self-evident. Alaska's child sexual assault rates are six times the national average. In the first three months of this year alone, the Office of Children's Services received 783 reports of sexual assault. HB 44 would help fight back against the sexual assault epidemic and make our state safer for our youth.

On Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee approved a significantly weakened version of the bill from Sen. Dunleavy. In the latest of over a dozen hearings that have been held this year on the Alaska Safe Children's Act, Dunleavy inserted language for three of his failed pet bills that have nothing to do with preventing sexual assault -- measures addressing standardized testing, college readiness standards, and most notably, language to restrict access to sexual health education.

That's right. Dunleavy and his colleagues used a bill designed to fight against sexual assault to further his own political desire to reduce access to sexual health education. Specifically, this language is identical to SB 89, legislation seen earlier in 2015 that would stop parents and teachers from making the sexual health education decisions that are right for their kids and their local communities. Rather than schools having the ability to choose the sexual health educations programs that are right for them, Sen. Dunleavy wants to let politicians in Juneau make those choices instead. The committee seems unconcerned about the fact that Alaska continually leads the nation in sexually transmitted infection rates.

What's worse, Dunleavy's changes make HB 44's sexual assault prevention and awareness education optional, rather than mandatory. This weakens the bill so substantially that parents who have been fighting for this bill are imploring our senators not to move this damaged bill forward.

The Alaska Safe Children's Act has seen widespread support and impassioned testimony from Alaskans from across the state over the past few months. But once Dunleavy added his failed bills into this popular bill, no opportunity for public input was given and everyday Alaska residents were not allowed to testify. It was just Sen. Dunleavy making choices for thousands of parents, kids and sexual assault survivors throughout our state.

After SB 89 was taken up last month and stalled before the end of regular session, Dunleavy stated that it would not be considered again until 2016 in order to "give us time to vet the bill thoroughly." It's still 2015, and apparently Dunleavy no longer thinks that his restrictions on sexual health education need to be vetted thoroughly -- and in fact thinks they're even more important than preventing sexual abuse prevention education for our youth.

The people of Alaska deserve better leadership from their public officials. This entire farce is a transparent attempt to piggyback Dunleavy's wish list of failed bills onto a popular and important bill.

If legislators truly care about stopping Alaska's sexual assault epidemic, they will move a clean version of HB 44 forward without any extra and unrelated language. It's time to stop playing politics with vulnerable children and students at risk.

Jessica Cler is the Alaska public affairs manager at Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest. She lives in Anchorage.

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, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

Jessica Cler

Jessica Cler is Alaska public affairs manager for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest.