COLUMBUS, Ohio — For the fifth time in 10 years, the bipartisan bill that would combat child sexual abuse is stalling at the Ohio Statehouse. The Democrat and Republican sponsors are determined to push the bill forward, now challenging the beliefs of those who don't want House Bill 105.
House Bill 105, known as 'Erin's Law,' would require each school district, community school, and STEM school to provide annual age-appropriate instruction in child sex abuse prevention. It also would incorporate that prevention into its required training for teachers and other professionals.
Representatives Brigid Kelly (D-Cincinnati) and Scott Lipps (R-Franklin) have put aside their party lines to work together on this bill. They have developed a close friendship by working on numerous bipartisan bills together. This is their latest and it has a ton of support.
"We introduced to make sure that kids have the tools that they need in order to stay healthy and well, and to live a good life and to be able to identify if something is wrong or inappropriate," Kelly said. "It's to be able to identify when something is wrong because if you've never been taught that something is inappropriate, it is really difficult to figure out how to say it's inappropriate."
They emphasize that this legislation is catered to age groups and would be taught in an appropriate matter depending on age.
"It's helping kids in K-6 understand a good touch, bad touch or appropriate behavior," Lipps added. "It's helping children 7-12 understand sexual violence or 'no means no.'"
The bill states that instruction in child sexual abuse prevention must include information on available counseling and resources for children who are sexually abused. It would also require the Department of Education to provide website links to free curricula addressing sexual violence prevention in order to assist schools in developing their own lessons.
"When these incidents happen to young folks, it's not something that just happens one day and then it's over," Kelly said. "This is trauma that they carry with them forever."
Erin's Law is based on Erin Merryn, a childhood sexual abuse survivor turned activist. Her law has already passed in 37 different states, starting in 2009. Many supporters of this bill have come to give testimony, including survivors, rape crisis centers, children advocacy groups and Merryn herself.
"The vote in the House was 86-8, so that's pretty convincing evidence," Lipps said. "We were excited thinking this would finally bring the end for these victims and survivors."
But it is now stuck in the Senate's Primary and Secondary Education Committee. Despite the effort over the past decade, the bill has stalled and never sat on the governor's desk.
"Representative Kelly and I have met with them several times and the chairman and we've also polled the committee and the Senate," he said. "We actually have the votes in the Senate to pass this bill — so we are looking for a vote. If they'll call the vote, we can get this out."
There have been just a few outspoken opponents of the bill. They are the eight House representatives who voted no and the Center for Christian Virtue (CVV). The organization was not available to do an interview but did provide a comment.
"Ohio already has sexual violence prevention education in our schools. It raises red flags when some activists push policies like Erin's Law in our schools but refuse to provide details on what the curriculum will entail or to let parents opt their children out of the course. Parents should not be treated like enemies and kept in the dark," President Aaron Baer said.
Originally, CVV was an "interested party" at the testimony hearings in the House. Still, they urged for an opt-out policy. Once the bill made its way into the Senate, the legislators say CVV changed gears entirely.
"They are opposed to the bill and they are teaching abstinence-only," Lipps said. "So they do not want this accepted curriculum, which has been honed over 37 states."
Kelly agreed, citing that sexual education is clearly not the same thing as child sexual abuse prevention.
"This bill does not establish a health curriculum and this bill does not establish a curriculum for sex education," she added. "This is about sex abuse prevention, this is about sexual violence prevention."
The Reps. said that they actually did include an opt-out provision.
"The parents are notified in advance, so that way they have the ability then to request that curriculum and review it," Lipps said. "A second compromise was once they've reviewed the curriculum, they can say, 'we'd like to opt our child out.'"
Both legislators said that opting out of sex abuse education is risky because the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) showed that of the reported cases, 93% of abusers are known to their victims — with many being family.
"If you're allowing that person to opt out, I'm not sure it's in the best interests of the child," he said.
But, it was a compromise they had to make to push the bill forward, they said.
"It's better than no bill at all," he said.
Kelly nodded in agreement.
"It puts you in a really difficult position to make compromises you aren't necessarily enthused about, but the potential to impact some people sometimes outweighs the trepidation of these compromises that are far from ideal," she said.
So, the more exposure on the bill, the faster it can get out of committee.
"This is a child education protection bill that is needed in Ohio now," Lipps said.
However, certain legislation that is currently in separate committees could hurt this bill from going through.
House Bill 327, the "divisive concepts" or "both sides" bill would prohibit the teachings of certain subjects or force teachers to share "both sides" of historical atrocities like the Holocaust, according to bill sponsor Rep. Sarah Fowler Arthur (R-Ashtabula).
"There are a number of bills where it would be hard to fathom how they could coexist, not just this one," Kelly said referencing HB 327 as a detriment. "If we're really serious about preparing young people and adults for being able to live and thrive in a diverse community, 327 certainly isn't the way. Providing kids with the tools that they need, as we would through Erin's law, it's certainly a step in the right direction."
Fowler Arthur was one of the eight No votes in the House for Erin's Law.
"So right now, I will tell you that it's obviously gotten attention because it's been in the press lately, so we've seen some missteps made by certain members of the House," Lipps added. "It is still processing through its committee, and it has not gone far enough yet to be a caucus issue — so we're certainly watching the bill."
The Reps. added that Erin's Law shouldn't be a controversial bill, unlike HB 327.
"It should be something that no matter where you live, no matter what side of the political aisle you find yourself on, this should be something on which we can agree because it helps kids and it helps young people in our state, and it helps potentially save them from a lifetime of trauma," Kelly said.