Springboro families were shaken to their cores in 2019 when they learned a former gym teacher had been accused of inappropriately touching first grade girls.
John Austin Hopkins was ultimately sentenced for 34 counts of gross sexual imposition involving 28 students, whom he would pull onto his lap or hold between his legs. The children didn’t know they were being abused, prompting parents to speak out in favor of efforts to bring sexual abuse prevention to classrooms, the Dayton Daily News reported.
Lawmakers got the message.
Last summer – one year after Austin Hopkins’ sentencing, the Ohio House approved a bill that would require school districts to teach child sexual abuse prevention in kindergarten through sixth grade classrooms and sexual violence prevention in grades 7-12. The vote was opposed by only eight Republicans.
Sponsors say the bipartisan bill has enough support to pass the GOP-controlled Senate and move to Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk. However, a conservative lobbying group has been working for months to derail the measure over concerns that it leaves parents in the dark and flies in the face of abstinence-only sex education.
“Who would not want to protect children?” Rep. Scott Lipps, R-Franklin, said.
Fighting over abstinence, opt-out
The bill in question, dubbed Erin’s Law, mirrors legislation approved by three dozen other states. It’s named for Erin Merryn, a child sexual assault survivor who is working to pass the law across the country after action in her home state of Illinois.
Lipps and Rep. Brigid Kelly, D-Cincinnati, have pushed the bill in Ohio’s last two legislative sessions, and it was introduced multiple times before that.
- Child sex abuse prevention should include information about counseling and resources for children who have been sexually abused. No other content requirements are outlined in the bill.
- The Ohio Department of Education must provide free resources to help districts develop curricula on sexual violence, an all-encompassing term that includes sexual assault, incest and intimate partner violence.
- School districts would be required to notify parents and guardians about the lessons and let them review the materials if requested.
Parental notification isn’t enough for opponents at the Center for Christian Virtue. Policy director David Mahan said the bill should allow parents to opt their children out of the curriculum altogether and argued it lacks a clear definition of what “age-appropriate” instruction means.
Mahan also contends the measure violates state law because it does not emphasize abstinence. Ohio currently requires educators to teach students that abstinence is the only guaranteed practice to avoid sexually-transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies.
“If we’re going to do that in the state of Ohio, it’s got to be abstinence-related,” he said. “It’s not opinion. It’s law.”
Allowing parents or guardians to remove their children from the program raises red flags for advocates. One in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under 18 are sexually abused by an adult, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, and one-third of the perpetrators are family members.
“Any effort to attach parental consent to this law is another layer of perpetuation of violence, removing power, control, agency and autonomy from the victim,” said Rosa Beltré, president of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence. “The vast majority of survivors of child sexual assault express that their victimization occurred at the hands of a caretaker, an adult they trusted, a parent.”
Erin’s Law: Bill in Ohio faces uncertain future
After meeting with the Center for Christian Virtue, Lipps said lawmakers agreed to let the group submit their own version of the bill for consideration.
The proposed draft would limit the teaching of abuse prevention to once in middle school, while dating violence education would be taught annually in grades 6-12. The courses could not encourage sexual activity among children, demonstrate contraceptive use or include information from groups that advocate for abortion access. It also says abuse prevention courses should note “that sexual activity is only appropriate in marriage” and discourage any implication that parents aren’t trustworthy.
“It absolutely guts Erin’s Law,” Lipps said. “There’s no reason that we would pass this bill.”
The future, for now, is uncertain. Lipps and Kelly want to avoid starting over so survivors don’t have to retell their traumatic experiences to lawmakers. The committee’s chairman, Sen. Andrew Brenner, expects further hearings but said they may be delayed because of redistricting.
“We have a bipartisan bill,” Kelly said. “We have a lot of support from families, from survivors, from advocates. I would think that those voices should carry weight in the statehouse.”
But the Center for Christian Virtue is still determined to squash the bill. Mahan said the topics are important – and in some cases already taught in schools – but the details don’t work for them.
“It’s important in terms of the what, but the how is an issue,” he said. “It’s not like if we oppose (the bill) we’re for abusing children, which is absolutely ridiculous.”