Advocates says mandatory sex abuse prevention education empowers kids

BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Wisconsin lawmakers want to add sexual abuse prevention to elementary school curriculum. They're proposing mandatory prevention education in grades K-6.

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Similar legislation exists in 37 states. It's called Erin's Law--named for Erin Merryn, a survivor of child sex assault.

Some local schools already have sexual abuse prevention as part of the curriculum. It's made an impact.

Becca Wilbershide of Willow Tree Cornerstone Child Advocacy Center spends a lot of time in elementary schools. She uses dolls and posters to connect with the children on this incredibly sensitive topic.

"They remember. They're actually understanding what I'm talking about and listening, and they remember what I said, not just in one ear and out the other," says Becca Wilbershide, prevention specialist, Willow Tree Cornerstone Child Advocacy Center.

As a prevention specialist for Brown County, Wilbershide approaches elementary schools prior to the school year. She asks if they would like her to provide students with free abuse prevention education.

"Preschool, kindergarten is pretty much the basics. No one can look or touch any private body part areas. Those private body part areas are covered by swimsuits. You say no and you run and you tell," says Wilbershide. "Where fifth grade is more sexual harassment, talking more serious topics, explaining sexual abuse in a way that is not just saying: no, run, tell."

Wilbershide says the decision is up to each school. She's seen it make a difference. In some cases, students have reported abuse and come to the Willow Tree Child Advocacy Center for help.

"Or I'll walk through the waiting area and they'll be like, I think that's who talked to me, so, I hate seeing when the kids get here, but I'm glad that it's getting to them that you know what, what is happening to them isn't OK," says Wilbershide. "And sometimes it does just take hearing it from someone they've never heard it from before, be like, this is not OK behavior and it needs to stop."

Assembly Bill 377 would require the Department of Public Instruction to develop the child sex abuse prevention policy by July 2020. If the bill passes, it would be implemented in the 2021-22 school year. CLICK HERE to read the bill and follow updates.

Each school board would decide to adopt the DPI program or use their own program.

Survivor Erin Merryn has been pushing for Wisconsin to adopt the law.

"When I was six, I was sexually abused at my first overnight at my best friend's house. Her uncle lived with her, and he had come into the bedroom and sexually abused me and told me to keep it a secret," says Merryn.

CLICK HERE to learn more about Erin's Law.

The abuse continued for years. She was also repeatedly assaulted by a family member.

"I was constantly being threatened. This is our secret. No one will believe you, Erin. You will destroy our family if you tell anyone. This is going to be your fault, so that was the only education I was getting," says Merryn.

Ten years ago, Erin started the push for mandatory education in all schools in her home state of Illinois. Her focus has now turned to Wisconsin to become the 38th state with Erin's Law legislation.

"It's a sensitive topic, there's no doubt about it. I mean, it really is, but it's a topic, too, that I think needs to come to the forefront," says Rep. John Spiros (R) Marshfield.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is behind the Erin's Law bill in Wisconsin.

Advocates say some kids are afraid to speak up. Others may not understand that what is happening to them is wrong.

Children in the federally-funded education have been empowered to speak up.

"Starting young with a child is very important," says Kristie Sickel, Willow Tree Cornerstone Childhood Advocacy Center director. "For children to understand how to keep their body safe, what they should do in a potentially dangerous or confusing situation."