Teaching the young how to recognize and report sexual abuse

Colleen O'Dea | May 30, 2019 | Education
Lawmakers approve bill requiring development of curriculum for all public school students in New Jersey, including pre-K

Credit: Erin Merryn
Erin Merryn, for whom Erin's Law is named, has been campaigning across the country for sexual-assault education.
Public-school children in New Jersey would learn about sexual abuse and what to do about it beginning in preschool under legislation awaiting Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature.

Known as Erin’s Law, after a child sex-abuse survivor who has become a national advocate for age-appropriate sexual-assault awareness and prevention curricula in schools, the bill cleared its final legislative hurdle last week. Both the Senate and Assembly passed the measure without opposition.

If Murphy signs the bill, New Jersey would become the 36th state to require the inclusion of sexual-assault awareness and prevention in the curriculum, essentially giving children the tools needed to recognize and report sexual abuse. Schools would have to begin teaching about abuse in the upcoming school year after the bill is signed, which could mean the year that begins in September.

“Every child should understand how to recognize and report sexual abuse,” said Sen. Anthony R. Bucco (R-Morris), a prime sponsor of the bill. “Teaching kids not to talk to strangers isn’t enough when their abuser could be hiding in plain sight. Ninety-three percent of kids know their attacker. They need age-appropriate safe-touch education.”

Because child sexual abuse often goes unreported, it is difficult to quantify how many children fall victim. According to data from the National Center for Victims of Crime, one in five girls and one in 20 boys is sexually abused, with children most vulnerable between the ages of 7 and 13.

Age-appropriate instruction

“It has become painfully clear how rampant this is, and how important it is to educate young people about sexual abuse so they can protect themselves,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), another prime sponsor of the bill. “By having these conversations, we are reaffirming that abuse is not okay and no one should have to suffer in silence.”

The measure would require the state education commissioner to develop age-appropriate learning activities and resources for districts to use. The commissioner would work with officials from the state Department of Children and Families, the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, New Jersey Children’s Alliance and other groups with relevant experience in creating the materials. Teaching about sexual abuse and prevention would become part of the state’s core curriculum content standards for health and physical education.

According to Bucco, some private schools in New Jersey already provide safe-touch educational resources that are similar to those that would be mandatory under the legislation. In at least one New Jersey case, having this knowledge had an impact, as a child spoke up and reported her abuser following a lesson.

“The trauma caused by sexual abuse is often deep and long-lasting,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), another prime sponsor of the bill. “By educating school-age children about what constitutes sexual abuse and how they can protect themselves, we can save these children from the painful aftermath.”

A major proponent of sexual-assault education in New Jersey and around the country has been Erin Merryn, for whom the bill is named. She said her goal is to get all 50 states to provide the curriculum. In testimony before a legislative committee last year, Merryn told about how she was assaulted first by a friend’s uncle and later an older cousin between age 6 and 13.

“The only message I was getting as a child was from the men hurting me and that came from threats to silence me,” she said. “Had I been taught to speak up and not keep this a secret, on what a safe touch and unsafe touch is, a safe secret and an unsafe secret, I feel I would have spoken up from the start, instead of being abused for years as a child.”

Advocates: ‘Never too early’

A number of other advocacy groups have been working with lawmakers for years to advance the measure and they stressed the importance of not only teaching children about identifying and stopping sexual assault but of doing so at young ages.

“It’s never too early to begin talking to young people about the power they have,” said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “By engaging young people, and the caring adults in their lives, in meaningful, age-appropriate conversations about consent, bodily autonomy and respect, we can begin the culture-changing work of reducing sexual violence.”

Richard Pompelio, who founded the New Jersey Crime Victim’s Law Center, agreed, saying education is critically important “in fighting back the tide of sexual abuse that occurs throughout New Jersey and the nation.”

The governor’s office does not comment on pending legislation and the proponents of the bill are not assuming that the measure, which passed the Senate 39-0 and the Assembly 76-0, is going to be signed.

“Our fight is not over just yet,” Bucco said. “I hope that everyone will continue to raise their voices and urge Governor Murphy to sign it as soon as possible.”

“Hopefully kids across New Jersey will soon be able to understand personal body safety, so they can use their voice if something horrible ever happens to them,” said Merryn. “Now that both houses of the Legislature have passed Erin’s Law, it is my hope that the governor will sign our bill to help abused children right away. There is no time to waste.”