Bill would add dangers of sexual assault, abuse to elementary school curriculum

Hartford - A bill that would require second- to fifth-grade students in public schools across the state to learn about the dangers of sexual assault and abuse and to create policies to help victims was discussed Thursday in the General Assembly's Committee on Children.

A similar bill was passed last year in the Senate but didn't make it out of the House of Representatives. State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who has advocated for the bill, said she hopes it will be brought to a vote this year.

"Many people have asked why, with all the things we're required to teach children, we should add one more thing to the pile, and I say - why not?" Osten said during a public hearing on the bill Thursday.

Members of the public spoke in favor of the bill along with a representative from the statewide Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services. However, Jillian Gilchrest, director of public policy and communications for CONNSACS, said the agency wants the state to engage with them as they create an educational program, expand the program to grades K-12 and require local school boards to provide learning opportunities for parents.

"We really want to teach social skills and character strength, which reduces the child's chance of vulnerability" at a young age, Gilchrest said during a phone interview Friday.

The education component should go further than "good touch, bad touch" because the offender is usually someone the child knows, she said.

"We know the offenders seek out the child who isn't the most talkative, they seek out children who they know might be the least likely to tell or a child who might get in trouble a lot so if they were to tell they might not be believed," Gilchrest said.

About one in three to one in four girls are sexually abused, as are one in six to one in seven boys, according to several studies. The majority of perpetrators are someone the child knows. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, victims of sexual abuse can face consequences including chronic pelvic pain, migraines, disability that prevents work, shock, denial, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

"I could tell you about my own family member, the reason why I have worked so hard with Erin's Law, who was abused and was not able to say so for over a year," Osten told the Committee on Children.

Erin Merryn was repeatedly raped by a neighbor as a child and lobbied for state education laws. Osten said Thursday that Merryn's experience, her own family member's experience and stories from female inmates on sexual abuse all encouraged her to propose the bill, introduced by the Committee on Children.

Merryn was named Woman of Year in 2012 by Glamour magazine for her advocacy and public work. So far, nine states have passed legislation requiring school-aged children to learn about sexual abuse, and 25 states, including Connecticut, have legislation pending. Osten said she met Merryn at the awards ceremony and was honored to introduce the bill in Connecticut.

During Osten's work at the Department of Correction, she learned that 67 percent of all female inmates had been sexually abused as pre-adolescents. One 20-year-old told her she didn't know sexual abuse was wrong. "She had revealed to me that she had not known that sexual abuse was neither appropriate nor acceptable and she did not have to put up with it," Osten said.

As currently written, the bill would require the Department of Children and Families with the Departments of education and social services to develop a statewide abuse and assault awareness program for local and regional boards of education by Jan. 1, 2015. The program would include instructional modules for all teachers on prevention, identification and response to child sexual abuse and assault. The policy would include a way for child victims to get help, counseling options and universal reporting procedures.

Gilchrest said CONNSACS would like its nine member organizations to be included in the design of the education programs and would like to expand the parental engagement component of the bill. Currently, the bill requires that resources be made available to parents.

Osten said on Friday that she would be open to giving CONNSACS a role in the process.

CONNSACS and its member organizations have education programs in place, such as age-appropriate puppet shows, that teach children empowerment and self-worth.

But Gilchrest said that it is difficult to get into schools. There is a lot of pushback from schools that fear parents might not approve of the training, she said.

j.somers@theday.com

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