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Nervous about legal action, schools aren’t implementing sex abuse prevention law in Tennessee

By August 28, 2017 No Comments

Brentwood AcademyArticle from the Tennessean.

In response to growing concerns about child sexual abuse, Tennessee lawmakers enacted a law encouraging schools to provide prevention education to teachers and students.

But the 2014 measure, known “Erin’s Law,” has run into an unanticipated obstacle — one also created by state lawmakers.

The so-called “Gateway law,” approved by the legislature in 2012, allows for teachers and school districts to be penalized for providing anything but abstinence-based sex education. It prohibits any discussion of “gateway” behaviors that could lead to premarital sex.

As a result, many Tennessee public schools aren’t talking to kids about sex abuse prevention at all — for fear that broaching the subject will spur questions from kids about healthy sexuality, something that could lead to civil fines or lawsuits by parents under the 2010 law.

“Some schools are afraid that if they begin talking about sexual assaults or bystander training the kids will want to talk about sex,” said Kim Janecek, education curriculum manager at the Sexual Assault Center.

“A lot of schools also just want to bury their heads in the sand and pretend this issue isn’t happening,” she said. “They don’t want to tackle this topic. They’re afraid they’ll get parent backlash. But it’s more prevalent than they realize. One in six boys and one in four girls are sexually assaulted.”

In Tennessee, there were 3,072 child sex abuse cases reported across the state in 2016, a number that child advocates say is under-reported.

A pair of lawsuits filed this month against Brentwood Academy and parents of teenage boys who allegedly perpetrated sexual violence on another boy highlighted the issue of child-on-child sexual abuse and scrutiny of the response of school officials to sex abuse allegations.

Advocates for children say it’s critical for schools — where children form trusted relationships with adults in a position to help them — to take greater responsibility for identifying and reporting sex abuse.

“Children and teens spend so much of their waking time in school that it has a great deal of potential for recognizing signs and symptoms of a kid who is being abused and responding appropriately,” said Cary Rayson, community engagement coordinator with
Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee.

Neither Erin’s law nor the Gateway legislation apply to private schools.

State education officials do not track how many schools have implemented Erin’s law, named after an Illinois woman who was sexually abused as a child and has since advocated for similar laws across the country.

In Texas, one of at least 26 states that have passed Erin’s law or similar measures, educators increased their reporting of child sexual abuse by 283 percent in the year following its implementation, according to a survey of 79,644 public school staff in 2015.

The Sexual Assault Center created sex abuse prevention lesson plans for Tennessee educators to use for free following the passage of Erin’s Law.

Last year 250 out of Tennessee’s 1,833 public schools requested the lesson plans, Janecek said.

Davidson County public schools have not implemented any policies or programs associated with Erin’s Law but have provided training to counselors and social workers, said Tony Majors, executive officer for the Department of Student Support Service.

Nashville schools have the option to use the Sexual Assault Center training but it is not required, he said.

Majors declined to respond to a question about whether schools generally are concerned about violating the Gateway law by providing sex abuse prevention education.

In Williamson County public schools, “there are many standards covered throughout a students educational journey” said spokeswoman Carol Birdsong. None are specific to sexual abuse prevention.

The standards include: “the student will understand the contribution of family relationships to healthy living,” and “the student will understand the stages of human growth and development,” Birdsong noted.

Sex abuse prevention training is designed to be age appropriate, talking about “safe versus unsafe touching” and assertiveness skills —- such as knowing when to say no when faced with inappropriate behaviors — at the elementary and middle school levels, according to Janecek.

At the middle and high school levels, the conversations should focus on healthy relationships, online safety skills and bystander intervention, she said.

Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee and the Sexual Assault Center are working to reach parents, teachers and school counselors at community meetings and statewide conferences with a “tool kit” to advocate for implementing Erin’s Law in their local schools.

The response has been mixed, according to Janecek.

“Some are very receptive, but we get a lot of push-back sometimes especially in rural counties saying ‘we don’t think it’s happening here. We’ll get back to you if something comes up.'”

If you or someone you care about was sexually abused and you would like advice from an attorney about the rights and options for victims of child sexual abuse, please contact Crew Janci LLP today for a free, confidential consultation at 1-888-407-0224 or by using our private online form.  We will treat you with discretion and respect.

You are not alone.  We are here to help.


Andria Seo

About Andria Seo

Andria Seo is an Associate Attorney at Crew Janci LLP. Andria is a graduate of the New York University School of Law. During law school, she worked with the National Center for Youth Law, the Legal Aid Society, and the NYCLU. Prior to joining the team at Crew Janci LLP, Andria advocated for vulnerable children and their families as a staff attorney at Partnership for Children’s Rights, a nonprofit based in New York City. Andria also previously worked assisting in the representation of victims of a terrorist attack in civil suits. Andria moved to Portland in 2016 and joined Crew Janci LLP in 2017. She is admitted to practice in Oregon and New York