Alaska Legislature Takes Second Look at Erin’s Law

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Erin’s Law  is back in the legislature. If passed, the bill would require school districts, statewide, to provide age-appropriate K-12 sexual abuse education. Last session Representative Geran Tarr, a Democrat from Anchorage, introduced Erin’s Law which died in the House Finance Committee.

This time around Tarr filed the same version she introduced last year before the session even started, but for the same reasons.

“The idea here is by having this education students know how to speak up if they have experienced sexual assault or sexual violence if someone has, you know, done something to them that shouldn’t have been done. It’s about giving students that voice and giving them the language to speak up so they are empowered and can be a part of stopping this from happening in Alaska,” said Tarr.

Erin Merryn, a victim of sexual abuse as a child, testified in the House Education Committee on House Bill 233, also known as Erin’s Law. Rep. Geran Tarr is the bill sponsor. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)
Erin Merryn, a victim of sexual abuse as a child, testified in the House Education Committee on House Bill 233, also known as Erin’s Law. Rep. Geran Tarr is the bill sponsor. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Alaska has some of the highest rates of child sex abuse in the country. There were nearly 2,700 sexual abuse cases involving children reported to the state Office of Children’s Services in 2014. The law is named after 29-year-old Erin Merryn from Illinois, who was sexually abused as a child and has made it her goal to pass the law in all 50 states. Last year she testified before the legislature about the law which, Tarr says, had broad bi-partisan support.

“I’m looking forward to that same level of support this year. There were several different suggestions as to what happened. It got lost at the end of session, maybe there was some partisan decision-making involved, I was a freshman member of the Democratic minority, maybe we ran out of time,” said Tarr.

Last year, Republican Senator Lesil McGuirecarried the bill in the Senate, but it went nowhere when the Legislature got caught up in a standoff over a minimum wage bill. This year, Republican Representative and Majority Leader, Charisse Millett has introduced another version. She says she wants to hear from local Alaskans throughout the process.

“I would like to have a face, folks talking about this bill that are from Alaska that have the Alaskan story that they can tell. Because I think it’s important for folks in Alaska to hear from Alaskans. It’s important that Alaskans take ownership that there is a problem, and then an ownership that they want to solve the problem,” said Millet.

Bethel Democratic Representative Bob Herronsupports the bill. He says all too often he sees problems with how sexual abuse is handled in schools, especially in his district.

“They just call OCS and then someone else comes in. And that OCS person, though they are hard-working people, they’re not around the children as much as a teacher is. And so, I think it’s important that teachers, school administrators are taught the warning signs and then maybe we can collectively, society, can get involved earlier when a child is being harmed,” said Herron.

“Or, prevent it altogether,” adds Herron. He points out there was recently a large out-of-court settlement in Yukon Kuskokwim Delta’s Yupiit School District over a teacher accused of molesting girls in Tuluksak.

“Of course it’s well-chronicled that recently in one the schools in one of the villages in the Delta we had a school employee that was involved in abusing these young people, so we’ve got to talk about it. Communication is better,” said Herron.

The bill does not have a fiscal note attached, however legislators say it could cost districts to train staff. Members of the House majority say bills that cost money will get extra scrutiny this session, as the state faces a multi-billion dollar budget deficit due to falling oil prices. Last year Tarr said the Alaska Children’s Trust, theRasmuson Foundationand the Mat-Su Health Foundation had all expressed support for the bill.

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Daysha Eaton is the News Director at KBBI in Homer. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.