Erin’s Law: ‘Stalking the Boogeyman’

  • By STEPHANIE SHOR
  • Sunday, February 15, 2015 10:19pm
  • News

Sexual assault prevention took the spotlight at the Capitol last week as legislators heard testimony from child sexual abuse survivors.

If passed this session, HB23, better known as Erin’s Law, would introduce students from kindergarten through high school to a curriculum of sexual abuse prevention training.

Investigative journalist and filmmaker David Holthouse spoke at the Capitol on Thursday and Friday to share his own story of sexual abuse.

“I remember learning what to do in an earthquake and things started falling from the ceiling — you get under your desk. I remember learning what to do if I caught on fire — stop drop and roll,” Holthouse said during a Friday press conference.

But the education Holthouse received as a child growing up in Anchorage didn’t prepare him for what happened when he was seven years old. Holthouse didn’t know how to explain what happened when a neighbor’s son raped him in 1978.

Holthouse’s parents taught him about words like “safe touch” and “unsafe touch,” “safe secrets” and “unsafe secrets,” when he was 10. By then, it was three years too late. The assailant was an older boy, a high school basketball star, and was idolized by Holthouse until the assault.

It wasn’t until 2004, when Holthouse was a grown man, that he shared his confession in an article for a weekly newspaper. He had considered seeking revenge on his assailant. He even considered murder.

Just when he was at his lowest, Holthouse’s mother found his old chidhood diary, which detailed the assault, and called him in tears. Holthouse decided in that moment not to shoot the man who had become a monster in his mind. On a street corner, he met the man who was deteriorated with age and guilt, and heard his apology.

Holthouse believes that if he had been taught to understand sexual abuse as a child, he might have been able to tell someone sooner. According to the bill, one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before they turn 18. Only one in 10 report it.

“I could have even said, ‘that thing we talked about in school the other day, that happened to me,’” Holthouse said.

Trauma has moved him to share his story in hopes that other victims know they are not alone. Holthouse shared his story on the radio show “This American Life,” and last year completed an off-Broadway play on his experiences, called “Stalking the Bogeyman.”

Nationwide statistics show Alaska dominates the country in the rate of sexual abuse cases affecting children.

The Office of Children’s Services said 1,817 victims reported 2,296 allegations of sexual abuse in 2013. Alaska Native children made up 40 percent of those victims.

The bill’s namesake, Erin Merryn, was disappointed with the bill’s rejection in Alaska last year and vowed to not return in 2015. Merryn has travelled the country to promote the bill in all 50 states.

It has already been approved in 19 states; legislation is pending in 18 others. Erin’s Law passed the Senate unanimously in 2014 but was shut down in the House Finance Committee.

The proposed bill was presented in its first hearing to the Senate Education Committee Thursday by Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, and was referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, proposed the bill last year with 22 sponsors.

Four identical bills were introduced this session by Democrats and Republicans, Tarr, along with 10 co-sponsors, hopes to push HB23 through this time.

Tarr told reporters Friday that Fairbanks has already seen positive results from using what it calls Erin’s Policy.

Fairbanks voluntarily implemented this version of Erin’s Law after a student was assaulted by a math tutor in March 2014.

“This is a relatively simple effort to try to give children tools to understand when touch is bad or good and when secrets are bad or good. To give them framework,” Gardner told the education committee.

The proposed curriculum would be tailored to each grade level and teach the fundamentals of personal safety so children and teens know when and how to report abuse.

Tarr said younger children who are not familiar with sexuality especially need to understand these concepts and know which encounters are inappropriate.

“When things are outside a child’s frame of reference, they don’t have a way to think about things, let alone talk about them,” Gardner said.

Kindergarteners may be taught to protect their “bathing suit areas,” while older students learn more age-appropriate lessons.

Prevention training will be separate from sex education classes, Tarr said.

Tarr said she’s confident that partnerships with community organizations will allow funding for curriculum materials if Erin’s Law passes.

Programs such as the Alaska Children’s Trust have already expressed interest in supporting the prevention initiative.

Gardner said she doesn’t foresee schools opposing the idea of sexual abuse prevention, but she fears some may resist because of a lack of “time and energy” due to already busy schedules.

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