The Survivor Battling to Get Child Sex Abuse Education in Elementary Schools
In the US, approximately one in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused before the age of 18, but far too few schools provide students with any form of education on the subject.
Photo courtesy Erin Merryn.
In February 2016, a Maryland fifth grader sat in class as her teacher and school counselor taught a special lesson on personal body safety. According to a report last month from the Washington Post, the adults testified in court later that about halfway through the instruction, the 11-year-old's demeanor changed: "She slumped in her chair and stared out the window. Finally, she put her head down on her desk." When the educators later asked the girl if something was wrong, she confessed that a longtime teacher of hers had repeatedly touched her inappropriately.
Investigators eventually discovered that she wasn't his only victim. Four months after she disclosed, John Vigna—a third-grade teacher who'd spent 24 years at Cloverly Elementary School in Silver Spring—was arrested. In August, according to the Post, he was sentenced to 48 years in prison for sexually abusing four students over the course of 15 years.
It's stories like these that drive Erin Merryn, an author, child sex abuse survivor, and advocate for other victims. She's spent the last eight years working diligently to get legislation requiring schools to teach child sex abuse prevention passed across the country—what's now known as Erin's Law. In the US, approximately one in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused before the age of 18.
"What I always said when I went after this law," Merryn tells Broadly, "is that if [it] can give one kid a voice to break their silence and end their horror, it's well worth all my time and effort traveling around America to get it passed."
Between the ages of six and 13, Merryn was sexually abused by two different perpetrators: a friend's uncle and an older cousin. After years of working through those horrific experiences, she began reaching out first to legislators in her home state of Illinois, then to lawmakers all over the country to encourage them to pass legislation that would require schools teach age-appropriate instruction that would help prevent sexual abuse.
"I'll contact them by Facebook, Twitter and email—any avenue I can use to get their attention," she says. In 2012, she told Glamour magazine, which named her Woman of the Year, that her ultimate goal was to "to put sex offenders out of business."
One of the biggest hurdles Merryn has faced over and over again working to get Erin's Law passed is dealing with lawmakers who refuse to consider the legislation because of the misconception that it will require schools teach sexual health education for children. As a result, she says she's had to tell lawmakers drafting these bills not to refer to the issue as "sexual abuse education," but rather, "personal body safety."
"There's been so much confusion in several states because of the language. Colorado, for example, was an ugly state," Merryn says. "They were very conservative—'We're not teaching kids sex ed.' And the senator sponsoring the bill was like, 'No, this is not sex education. This is something completely separate.' This is not teaching kids about abstinence, about STDs—this is personal body safety. It's about teaching kids about safe and unsafe touches, safe and unsafe secrets, how to speak up if this is happening to you, how to identify safe adults in your life that, if something's going on, you can go to."
Even after she's made that distinction, she says, conservative lawmakers still push back. "They don't like the idea of anything about sex being discussed with children, even if it is to protect them."
So far, 31 states have enacted Erin's Law. Encouragingly, 15 of the remaining states are considering drafted legislation. In some cases, however, it's been a long battle. "New York has been the most difficult," Merryn says. "I've been trying [to get this bill passed] for five years now since I went there in 2012." Critics there, she explains, are concerned educators already have enough on their plate without having to teach personal body safety.
In fact, Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, the chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, told WRVO in 2014 that New York has led the way on sex education and prevention of abuse and exploitation. "We don't want the legislature putting in the heavy-handed politics telling teachers this is what you must teach," Nolan said at the time. That same year, Children Advocacy Centers in New York received 10,556 reports of of child sexual abuse. In 2016, that number had risen to 12,225.
Merryn says the only two states she's never heard from, despite writing lawmakers there for years, are Idaho and Wyoming. According to data compiled by the National Children's Alliance, child sexual abuse is as much an issue in those two states as it is across the country. In 2016, Children Advocacy Centers in Idaho handled 1,512 reports of sexual abuse; in Wyoming, they took in 2,864.
Despite the challenges, Merryn has remained dedicated to getting Erin's Law passed—and that includes telling her personal story of abuse over and over again. "It's very therapeutic to get up there and talk because I was told my entire childhood by two perpetrators, 'Don't tell anybody. Keep quiet, this is a secret,'" she says. "So the fact that I can go out there and make some noise about it and bring it to people's attention is empowering."
"What's interesting," she continues, "is I get other survivors stepping forward and saying this happened to them. It's not just about educating the kids and the teachers. It's about sending the message to other survivors out there that you don't have to be silent and you're not alone."