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The first sexual abuse that Erin Merryn suffered was by an adult neighbor. She was 6 years old when it started and 8 when it ended.
“I didn’t tell anyone,’’ Merryn says now. “Nobody knew why I was acting out.’’
Then a teenage cousin sexually abused her when she was 11 to 13 years old.
Merryn soon came forward with her story. And as a high school senior, she self-published her diary, “Stolen Innocence.” Now, at age 33, she leads a crusade to get personal body safety taught to kids in public schools across the nation.
Merryn was in Georgia on Tuesday at the signing ceremony for Senate Bill 401. This new state law requires that public school students from kindergarten through the ninth grade get annual, age-appropriate education about sexual abuse and assault and how to prevent them.
Georgia is the 35th state to pass similar legislation, known as Erin’s Law.
It was among a flurry of bills signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday.
Research conducted by the CDC estimates that about 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before age 18.
Such abuse can lead to serious mental health issues, addiction and other problems, says Merryn, who lives in Chicago.
The proposal, though it did not draw opposition, got sidetracked during the General Assembly session this year, and almost died amid the late-session legislative maneuverings.
But the language requiring education on sexual abuse and assault found its way onto Senate Bill 401, which passed in the final minutes of the final day of the legislative session.
Rep. Wes Cantrell (R-Woodstock) was the main force driving the proposal.
He said Tuesday that he was moved to act in part by the sexual abuse scandal that hit the U.S. gymnastics team. The longtime team physician, Dr. Larry Nassar, is effectively serving life in prison for sexually abusing numerous young athletes over a period of years.
“Two of the young ladies told their parents [about the abuse], and their parents didn’t believe them,’’ Cantrell said Tuesday.
“I think we do a great job warning kids about talking to strangers,’’ Cantrell said. But most abuse is done by someone the child is familiar with,” he said.
Even a parent could be an abuser, or closely related to an abuser, Cantrell noted.
The legislation also mandates the training of the instructor, who should be either a teacher or school counselor. Cantrell said his goal was to give schools flexibility on how to comply with the law.
“It’s not sex education,’’ he said. “It’s trying to alert kids what to watch out for — what is ‘good touch and bad touch,’ and what to do if this occurs.”
Voices for Georgia’s Children, an advocacy group, praised the legislation. “Sexually assaulted children often do not know who to talk to or even what has happened to them,’’ said Polly McKinney of Voices. “Age-appropriate education on the subject can prevent abuse or help children find help when they need it.”
Merryn said she wants to bring the legislation to the 15 remaining states that don’t have such a law.
Kindergarten is not too young for this instruction, she said.
A lesson for kindergarten students and first-graders, for example, could be showing students “pictures of kids in their swimsuits,’’ and saying that areas of the body that are covered by a swimsuit should never be touched by other people, Merryn said.
Her goal, she says, is “to end this silent epidemic. We can’t sweep this under the rug anymore.”