‘Safe touch’ sex-abuse prevention lessons would start in pre-K
New Jersey schools may begin being required to teach “safe touch" education to deter sexual abuse, beginning in preschool, under legislation on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk after being passed unanimously by the Legislature.
The bill, A769, directs all public schools to teach age-appropriate sexual abuse and assault awareness and prevention in grades PK through 12 as part of the health and physical education curriculum. Some districts, as well as some private schools, may be doing it now, but it isn’t required.
Patrice Lenowitz, executive director of The Nurtured Parent, a support organization for survivors of domestic abuse based in Rochelle Park, said the bill – named Erin’s Law after its chief advocate, abuse survivor turned activist Erin Merryn of Illinois – “is incredibly exciting.”
“To have it pass means we actually have lawmakers that recognize how Erin’s Law can potentially save children’s lives,” Lenowitz said.
Lenowitz said that beyond safe and unsafe touching, the curriculum will also focus importantly on safe and unsafe secrets.
“They’ll have an opportunity to speak up sooner,” Lenowitz said. “And perhaps stop it while it’s happening or better yet, my greatest hope and dream, is that having this type of education each year for our children and the school community, it will prevent child sexual abuse from ever happening.”
Richard Pompelio, executive director and founder of the New Jersey Crime Victims’ Law Center, said the importance of education to address sexual abuse of children can’t be overstated.
“Child predators are devious and cunning. They take advantage of a child’s innocence and trust. The implementation of Erin’s Law will profoundly impact the safety of children,” Pompelio said.
Lenowitz said lessons for young students focus on “the bathing suit area.”
“Anything that’s covered by a bathing suit is your private parts. And no one has the right to touch you in your private parts, as well as you are not allowed to touch someone else in their private part areas,” she said. “And so it’s very basic but also very understandable for little ones.”
The instruction gets more detailed as kids get older and the culprits could be peers in school.
“Having this information grow with them and each year getting a little more sophisticated and age-appropriate for them, it will now be a more broad description of what’s acceptable conduct and what’s not acceptable conduct, which they will take with them into their future, into their work environment later on and into their future families themselves,” Lenowitz said.
New Jersey would be the 36th state to adopt Erin’s Law. The bill was first introduced in Trenton in 2013 though didn’t get a hearing until last year.
“It’s been taking a really long time, unfortunately, to catch on. Honestly, I don’t know what the hesitation would be,” Lenowitz said.
The Department of Education would have to provide schools with sample activities and resources, in consultation with the Department of Children and Families, New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey, New Jersey Children’s Alliance and other experts.
A separate law Murphy signed in January requires school districts to include instruction in grades 6 to 12 on the law and meaning of consent for physical contact and sexual activity. That law takes effect in September.
The bill now on Murphy’s desk would also take effect in September, if the governor signs it before the school year begins. His deadline for acting on the bill will be the next time the Assembly meets on July 7 or later.
The bill's lead sponsor in the Senate, Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, urged Murphy to sign the bill quickly so it can take effect in the 2019-20 school year.
“Every child should understand how to recognize and report sexual abuse. Teaching kids not to talk to strangers isn’t enough when their abuser could be hiding in plain sight. 93 percent of kids know their attacker. They need age-appropriate safe-touch education,” Bucco said.