Recent legislation for sex abuse education and school funding taking effect

Public school students in Georgia will learn about sex abuse beginning in kindergarten under new legislation signed into law earlier this year.

Senate Bill 401 was among several education bills passed. There is  House Bill 217, which increases funding for private school scholarships to $100 million annually, and House Bill 787, which gives more money to state charter schools.

The sexual abuse and assault awareness and prevention education mandated by SB 401 will reach 1.3 million students in kindergarten through ninth grade. The law started this year’s legislative session as House Bill 762. It is based on model legislation called “Erin’s law,” named after an Illinois woman who was sexually abused as a child.

Erin Merryn has pushed state legislatures across the country to pass their own version. When Deal put his pen to the bill, Georgia became the 35th, behind Washington and Wyoming, said Merryn, who attended the signing.

The main criticism she hears is that it’s an unfunded mandate for schools. Some also don’t like the idea of schools teaching sex education to their children. While it is an additional responsibility for schools — they also must train personnel to provide age appropriate lessons for the kids — it is not sex education, Merryn said. It’s about “personal body safety,” knowing how to recognize abuse and then report it.

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“It’s really to give kids a voice that I never had as a child,” she said.

Merryn said she’d been emailing Georgia lawmakers since 2016 asking each of them to carry a bill. She got some encouragement in a prior legislative session when a lawmaker agreed, but his effort fizzled. Then, attitudes about sexual abuse changed, with explosive reports about widespread abuse against actresses and child gymnasts, among others, including a lawsuit based in Georgia.

“I think this whole ‘me too’ movement helped,” she said.

Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, said he was moved to carry the legislation this year after he watched two women testify in the criminal trial against former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Their parents didn’t believe them when they disclosed what had happened.

Cantrell has a daughter in her early 20s, and wonders how he might have reacted had she told him as a child that she’d been abused by a coach, a friend or a family member. Most abusive situations involve trusted people who know the child, he said, not some stranger.

Cantrell said the only resistance he encountered was from people concerned about false accusations.

“I don’t know how to fix that,” he said, adding, “I think it’s worth the risk.”

May 8, 2018, Atlanta -- Child sexual abuse survivor Erin Merryn, of Illinois, (left) encouraged Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, (right) to write a new law requiring schools to teach students starting in kindergarten about sexual abuse. She talks with the lawmaker and his wife, Jane, at the Gold Dome after Gov. Nathan Deal signed Senate Bill 401 into law. (Ty Tagami)

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