AK Legislature: Erin’s Law is back again
“Erin’s Law” is back again. The bill was expected to pass with broad bipartisan support last session, but it died in the final days of the Legislature.
Rep. Geran Tarr, an Anchorage Democrat, reintroduced the measure this session. House Bill 29 would mandate all school districts in Alaska to offer education and prevention programs on child sexual abuse.
Tarr says the numbers speak to the need for sexual assault awareness.
“One in four girls will be assaulted before age 16. One in six boys, but only one will tell,” Tarr said, quoting national numbers. “This is a law to empower kids to speak up.”
It wasn’t until he was adult that David Holthouse, a prominent Alaska journalist, was ready to speak up. He was raped when he was 7 years old by the teenaged son of some family friends.
“There were not outward warning signs that anyone could have instructed me to watch out for, right up until the moment he closed the bedroom door and transformed from a guy who acted like my big brother, to a guy who acted like he was about to rape me,” Holthouse said.
The rapist was a high school football star.
“He was a cool dude, right? All the kids looked up to him, including me,” Holthouse explained.
Holthouse is making the rounds at the state Capitol, to convince lawmakers to pass Erin’s Law, named for Erin Merryn, a child sexual abuse survivor and Illinois activist. Merryn is on a national crusade to get each state to pass a law requiring schools to offer sexual abuse prevention programs. Merryn visited Juneau last year to convince lawmakers to be a part of the movement.
“Here’s how Erin’s Law would have protected me,” Holthouse said about his rapist. “Had he known I had been armed with information to immediately tell on him, he might not have committed the crime.”
Holthouse wrote a play called “Stalking the Boogeyman” about the rape, which occurred in 1978. He says the trauma continues to give him nightmares today
An adult plays Holthouse as a 7-year-old. He says it would have been unthinkable to ask a child to re-enact such a violent act. In the play, Holthouse plans to kill his rapist, but in the end settles for a confrontation. The off-Broadway play evoked a powerful response.
Holthouse’s parents — both educators — were in a position to be aware about the dangers of child molesters. His mother, Rita, served on the Anchorage School District board.
“My parents told me about good touch and bad touch,” Holthouse said. “But they did it when I was about 10 years old. That was about three years too late.”
Holthouse believes children should start learning about sexual assault as early as kindergarten. He said students are taught about earthquakes and fires — so why not about sexual abuse?
Rep. Geran Tarr believes there are ways to tailor the message to the child’s age.
“7-year-olds are not thinking about sex, but we want to keep them safe,” Tarr said. “This is personal body safety.”
Holthouse believes sexual assault awareness at an early age will also help children who are victimized and often feel alone. He said he grew up worrying that he would someday behave like his abuser.
“I felt like a werewolf had bitten me, and it was just a matter of time before a full moon rose,” Holthouse said, adding that instead, he’s become an advocate for awareness and prevention.
While Tarr is disappointed the bill didn’t pass last session, she says there’s an upside.
“People are talking about it more,” Tarr said. “Fairbanks passed a policy themselves, and they were made aware of it by the work in the Legislature.”
Holthouse spent two days at the Capitol visiting with lawmakers to convince them of the merits of the legislation.
Some lawmakers feel the state, with its multi-billion-dollar revenue shortfall, has no business imposing unfunded mandates on schools, but Tarr and Holthouse say the costs are minimal compared to what happens when a child is sexually abused. Statistically, survivors are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.
Tarr says there is a wealth of materials already written, which schools can use — and they aren’t very expensive. She also said there are other groups who want to step up and help schools to provide these programs.
The bill had cleared the Senate last session but was stalled in a House committee — chaired by Bill Stolze, who moved over to the Senate this session.
Stoltze says he’s followed Holthouse’s story, because he knows his family and would like to understand what happened.
The Chugiak lawmaker says he has nothing against Erin’s Law — that the bill didn’t make it out of his committee, because it got lost in the chaotic final days of the session. He said he really doesn’t know much about the legislation and would consider supporting it – but he wants to understand the issues involved first.
As for Holthouse, he says telling his story gives him solace, especially when it empowers someone who has been victimized to speak out.
“I feel like I’m giving other people the invitation to break their own silence,” Holthouse said.
He believes perpetrators depend on society’s collective silence as cover for their crimes.