Southwest Ohio lawmakers push bill to teach students how to prevent sex abuse

Credit: Laura A. Bischoff

Credit: Laura A. Bischoff

Led by Franklin and Cincinnati legislators, Ohio lawmakers are again making a bipartisan push for a bill that would teach students age-appropriate lessons aimed at stopping abuse. The renewed effort is fueled in part by the conviction of a Springboro teacher for sexually assaulting dozens of students.

The state has 1.8 million school-age children, said Rosa Beltre, executive director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence. Of those, one in four girls and one in six boys will be victims of sexual abuse; but only a third will report it, she told a Senate committee during an Oct. 5 hearing for House Bill 105.

“Sexual assault continues to be the most underreported crime in the U.S. and in Ohio,” Beltre said.

Sally Dyer told her story Oct. 5 to members of the Ohio Senate Primary & Secondary Education Committee, urging them to pass House Bill 105.

Versions of the bill have failed in five previous legislative sessions. Dyer, a Dayton resident and childhood sexual abuse survivor herself, said she has testified in favor those bills repeatedly since 2016.

For eight years Dyer served as guardian ad litem for a boy named Tony, who had been molested by relatives and then groomed by a pedophile, she told the committee. After aging out of the foster care system, he served stints in jail related to his drug addiction, which Dyer attributed to the trauma of his repeated abuse.

At age 34, Tony walked away from a treatment program a few days after Dyer’s last visit.

“Soon after that, the Dayton police found him dead behind a car wash with a needle in his arm,” she said.

House Bill 105 is the latest Ohio iteration of “Erin’s Law,” named for author and activist Erin Merryn. Merryn, now a spokesperson for the National Children’s Alliance, was sexually abused for six years as a child; as an adult, she advocates for schools to teach children personal body safety in order to prevent sexual abuse.

Passed in Merryn’s home state of Illinois in 2010, Erin’s Law has been adopted in some form by 37 states.

The latest attempt here is sponsored by state Reps. Scott Lipps, R-Franklin, and Brigid Kelly, D-Cincinnati. The bill is cosponsored by state Reps. Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton; Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield; Susan Manchester, R-Waynesfield; Andrea White, R-Kettering; and Tom Young R-Washington Twp.

Backers introduced HB 105 in February. It passed the House 86-8 in June.

Opposition and prospects

No one has spoken openly to oppose HB 105. But there is pushback, as previous attempts faced, Lipps said.

“The opponents of this bill continue to be the far right,” he said.

Groups such as the Center for Christian Virtue treat the proposal as an attempt to sneak more sex education into the curriculum, Lipps said. But it would really just teach children K-6th grade to recognize and report “bad touch,” and older students to avoid sexual violence, he said.

“This is not pioneering legislation,” Lipps said. “We’re not trying to re-create the wheel here.”

The Center for Christian Virtue, formerly Citizens For Community Values, did not respond Friday to requests for comment.

There are other sticking points, Kelly said.

“Some of the pushback that we are hearing from folks is around who may be teaching the curriculum, and a little bit about parental opt-out, which is something that we are not interested in pursuing,” she said.

In some cases, the parent who could opt out of the lesson for a child is the abuser, Kelly said.

“Kids need this curriculum because they need to be able to identify a situation where something is going wrong,” she said.

If proponents can clarify the message, the bill has a good chance of passing this time, Lipps said. He said it’s encouraging that committe chair state Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Delaware, quickly called it for hearings.

Specifics and motivation

The bill would require schools each year to provide age-appropriate instruction in child sexual abuse prevention for grades K-6, and age-appropriate instruction in sexual violence prevention education for grades 7-12. Parents or guardians would be notified of the scheduled lesson and allowed on request to inspect the instructional material.

The state Department of Education would offer links on its website to help schools develop their curricula.

Schools would have to include training on recognizing and reporting child sexual abuse into their required in-service training for teachers and other professionals. Instruction in preventing abuse would have to include information on counseling and resources for children who are sexually abused.

The Ohio Education Association, which represents more than 121,000 teachers and other education professionals in the state, remains cautious about HB 105 as a sensitive topic, Director of Government Relations Director Steve Dyer said.

“We’re officially monitoring it,” he said. “We haven’t taken a position one way or another.”

A major driver of Lipps’ sponsorship was a Springboro abuse case, he said. Former Clearcreek Elementary School gym teacher John Austin Hopkins was convicted in 2020 on 34 counts of gross sexual imposition involving 27 first-grade girls during the 2018-19 school year. He was accused of acting inappropriately with 88 students.

Hopkins was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Such cases show the need for the education HB 105 proposes, Kelly said.

“You know, you wonder if those 88 kids could have been one kid, or no kids, because they would have been able to recognize something was wrong,” she said.

Survivors, experts testify

A succession of witnesses told committee members about years of sexual harassment or abuse in person, while more submitted written testimony. They said no one ever talked to them about how to recognize or report sexual abuse. Embarrassed and ashamed, they didn’t know who they could tell.

Michelle Carpenter, CEO of victim advocacy center Haven of Hope in Cambridge, said she has done outreach in school health classes for more than 20 years. Often, children have no knowledge of what constitutes sexual assault until seventh or eighth grade, she told the committee.

Access to the internet and social media have greatly expanded opportunities to entice children, so they must be armed against it early, she said.

All children are vulnerable to sexual abuse, and 93% of victims know their abuser, said Jaclyn Scanlan, a school-based mental health therapist for Catalyst Counseling in West Chester.

Victims as young as 10 years old have tried to kill themselves due to “guilt and shame,” she told committee members.

Teaching about sexual abuse in schools is the best way to reach the most children, Scanlan said. Students go through fire drills and active-shooter drills, but they’re more likely to face sexual abuse than either of those threats, she said.

In classrooms today are children who would, without intervention, grow up to be sex offenders themselves, Scanlan said. But teaching them empathy, physical boundaries and consent might prevent that, she said.

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