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Legislation requires sexual abuse awareness taught in K-12

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Public schools and some private schools will teach students as early as kindergarten about sexual abuse and assault if Gov. Larry Hogan signs a bill headed to his desk. Schools across the state could see the new material as early as next school year.

But the bill the Senate passed Tuesday could have the most profound impact on more than 200 private schools.

The measure requires the state Board of Education and private schools that participate in a state-funded textbook program to teach an age-appropriate sexual abuse and assault awareness and prevention curriculum.

Similar material is already taught in public schools starting in fourth grade, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.

But Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said the new curriculum could start as early as kindergarten and continue in some form through high school. 

"It would be integrated into the curriculum, the existing health curriculum," he said. "It tells kids that if you're uncomfortable with a way an adult is touching you, that you need to report it to somebody else."

Similar legislation has already passed in 26 states. Many states refer to it as “Erin’s Law,” for Erin Merryn, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who advocates for the laws.

Merryn, who lives in the suburbs of Chicago, said she was abused as a child. First, by a friend's uncle for two years beginning when she was 6. Then by her own cousin when she was 11.

“The only message I ever got was to keep it a secret, from my perpetrators," she said. "They said no one will believe you. This is our little secret."

Several years ago, it occurred to her that schools had fire drills and tornado drills, but no lessons on how to handle what happened to her.

“We put so much emphasis on stranger danger in schools, but the reality is 92 percent of the time kids are being sexually abused by someone we know and trust," she said.

Childhood sexual abuse is incredibly common.

“We saw well over 500 kids in the last year who have been victims of sexual abuse here in Baltimore City, and that's just a fraction of the problem because we know from years of studies that only one out of 10 kids report abuse," said Adam Rosenberg, executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.

He said he has no expectations this bill would stop abuse. But he hopes that it would at least encourage more victims to come forward.

The research on what sort of effect the law might have is unclear.

"Rates of sexual abuse and sexual assault have been going down, and going down almost everywhere, in places that have Erin's Law and places that haven't," said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. "Some of that may be due to prevention education that is out there in many forms.”

The research does show that children who have this type of education are more likely to report abuse. But there’s not enough proof that the education is the reason they report.

“The fact that rates have been going down suggests that there are things that have been working and this may in fact be one of them," Finkelhor said.

Rosenberg said the measure could have the added benefit of training teachers to recognize signs that a child is being abused, which in turn could help victims of abuse get the sort of support they need.

"It's the same way we've done scoliosis screening forever," Rosenberg said. "We're doing that so we can prevent bad health outcomes from happening later on in life.”

Those outcomes can range from depression and drug and alcohol abuse to heart disease and obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hogan’s office said the governor has not decided whether he will sign the bill.