Illinois Mandates Sexual Abuse Education in Public Schools

Illinois has passed a new law that requires all public schools to teach age-appropriate sexual assault and abuse awareness in their curriculum.

Governor Pat Quinn signed the measure known as Erin’s Law on Thursday, saying “those who are victims, we want to not only protect them but help them become survivors.”

The measure was named after 27-year-old Erin Merryn, who was sexually abused as a child and forced to endure the abuse for seven years before she had the courage to speak out.  Merryn has been pushing for the law for three years, and Thursday’s signing brought an overwhelming sense of relief.

“You do not know how joyous this is for me, how hard I’ve worked for this,” Erin said.

Merryn was the victim of sexual abuse from the ages of 6-8, and again from 11-13.

The governor signed the bill at The Children’s Advocacy Center of North and Northwest Cook County, the same place Erin first spoke up against her abuse.  She hopes the adoption of the bill will help children identify the signs of abuse and speak up sooner.

“This is a place I walked into scared and terrified that I wasn’t going to be believed,” said Erin.  “I never would have imagined 15 years later I would be walking through these doors getting a law passed to give kids a voice in the same place I found my voice.”

Although the bill is the first unfunded mandate in two years, it gives schools the flexibility to decide how they’ll teach the age-appropriate awareness.  Schools can pay to have an outside agency develop a curriculum, or they can teach their staff how it should be implemented.  Merryn says she doesn’t want to negatively impact any school budgets, and she hopes educators train their own staff to talk about sexual assault and abuse.

“Schools don’t just need to hire someone to come in (from) outside the school,” Merryn said. “You’ve got the staff right there that you already pay that are capable of teaching this, with the proper training.”

The law requires abuse education to be taught to children starting in pre-kindergarten.  Merryn said the age-appropriate awareness could be as simple as identifying who to talk to if children have questions or concerns.

Now that Erin’s Law has been passed at the state level, Merryn said she hopes to push for nationwide adoption.

“My innocence was killed, my trust was taken, but I reclaimed my voice and I want every victim of sexual abuse to do the same,” Erin said.

Illinois Attorney Miriam Szatrowski comments

This law, if implemented effectively, will help children understand what sexual abuse is, and where to go for help to make it stop. It may also aid law enforcement in investigating and prosecuting these cases by encouraging victims to come forward immediately, when the evidence and memories of the abuse are still fresh, instead of waiting weeks, months, or even years out of fear or shame.

This may also have the effect of preventing wrongful convictions, because any exculpatory evidence is also more likely to be available if allegations are made sooner.

It is important for people to know that if they are accused of any type of sexual abuse, they should talk to a lawyer immediately, and should not make any statements to police or anyone else before they have spoken with a lawyer.

Related source:  ABC, Chicago Tribune

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