As a child, Erin Merryn learned how to say no to drugs in her school’s DARE program and how to avoid talking to strangers during “stranger-danger” lessons.
What she didn’t learn in school, she says, was how to stop a person she knew and trusted from becoming her sexual abuser.
Merryn, who was sexually abused by a friend’s uncle at age 6 and a cousin a few years later, recently testified before a Maryland House committee in support of a bill that could help stem such abuse. The bill would require school districts to teach “personal body safety” to their students.
“The only message I got was from my abusers: ‘This is our little secret. No one will believe you. If you tell, I will come get you,’ ” said Merryn, 31, an Illinois resident who has been traveling to state capitals across the country to push passage of “Erin’s Law.” “Nobody was educating me on personal body safety, on the differences between safe touch, safe secrets and unsafe secrets.”
Under the Maryland version of Erin’s Law, the state Board of Education and nonpublic schools that receive state funding would be required to develop and implement an age-appropriate curriculum on the awareness and prevention of sexual abuse and assault. The program would be part of a school’s health-education program.
Twenty-six states have passed laws to study or implement child sex-abuse identification and prevention curriculums for students in pre-K to 12th grade, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states, including Mississippi and Nevada, have formed task forces; others such as Pennsylvania allow school districts to design programs; and several others, including Rhode Island and South Carolina, have required a curriculum.
Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery), sponsor of the Maryland bill, said the Prince George’s County case in which an elementary school volunteer is accused of abusing at least 16 students proves the need for the child-abuse prevention law. Police have charged Deonte Carraway, 22, of Glenarden, Md., with 10 counts of child pornography in connection with about 40 videos that show children performing sex acts.
“Every child should be given a simple message — which is that if an adult does something inappropriate to you, that you need to tell another trusted adult immediately,” Luedtke said. “It’s the simple, most effective thing we can do to reduce abuse.”
Luedtke introduced the measure last year after three sex abuse cases in two years were reported in public and private schools in Montgomery County. The bill passed the House 138 to 2, but died in the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. Luedtke said some senators seemed to think that the bill was about teaching sex education, and he vowed to do a better job this year educating lawmakers about the legislation.
Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington), one of the two no votes in the House last year, said schools should “be doing a better job” teaching core subjects instead of “delving into these things” like personal body safety.
But Parrott said his main objection to the bill was the provision that required certain nonpublic schools to teach the material.
“I think a private school should have the freedom to teach it or not teach it,” he said. “This just goes way too far into the private sector I think we should allow them to have the freedom.”
Luedtke, a former teacher, said the legislation is designed to help students who are being warned by their abuser not to tell anyone.
“Somebody has to be there with the message that, ‘You have to tell,’ ” Luedtke said. In Prince George’s, “had one of the first victims reported it, there would have been fewer victims. The abuser would have been stopped earlier.That’s the idea.”
A different bill introduced by Luedtke that became law last year requires school contractors and subcontractors to receive background checks and was inspired by a 2014 allegation that a contractor working in a middle school inappropriately touched a 12-year-old girl in a school hallway.
Next year, Luedtke said, he wants to look at the training of teachers.
Most teachers know they are expected to report abuse but are not trained on what signs to look for, he said: “We’re trying to keep advancing the law.”
According to the 2013 Child Maltreatment Report by the children’s bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there were 60,956 child sex-abuse cases reported in 2013.