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Erin’s Law to be Reintroduced in 29th Legislature

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An Anchorage lawmaker has announced she’d like the state legislature to revisit a proposal which stalled in the House last session.

Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage) sponsored House Bill 233 last year. She said at the time that a constituent had brought the issue to her attention. The proposal, dubbed “Erin’s Law,” would create sexual assault awareness and prevention programs in Alaska’s public schools. Current state statute permits localities to opt out of curriculum that includes health education. Some school districts, like the Mat-Su Valley and Anchorage, have adopted such programs. But many others have not.

Erin Merryn, a sexual abuse survivor and the measure’s namesake, came up to Alaska to testify before the House Education Committee in support of Tarr’s bill.

[Sexual abuse and assault] is that silent epidemic we don’t talk about. We look the other way, pretend it’s not going on, when I guarantee every single one of you in this room knows somebody that’s been affected by sexual abuse. The scars are invisible and the stigma and shame that is placed on this issue, we don’t talk about it as a society. We talk about juvenile diabetes, cancer, autism, bullying, but this is one of those things in society that continues to go on because we fail to address it.

Rep. Tarr and Erin Merryn. Photo by the Alaska Democratic House Caucus.
Rep. Tarr and Erin Merryn. Photo by the Alaska Democratic House Caucus.

Tarr provided committee members information from the Office of Children’s Services (OCS), Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, regarding sexual abuse statistics. OCS reported 1,187 unique alleged child victims in 2013 alone, 40 percent of whom were Alaska Native.

“To put it in perspective,” she said, “[1,187] victims is more than four of Homer High School. It’s more than three of Juneau High School. And even for us in Anchorage, with some of the bigger schools, it’s more than the number of students at Bartlett High School.”

“If this law can save just one child — one child in every state — and give them a voice and end their horror, then it’s well worth my passion and mission to go to every state and pass this law,” Merryn told committee members, adding that she’d be back, pounding on legislators doors, should they fail to pass the measure.

Merryn succeeded in making the legislation become law in ten states in 2014. 19 states total now have Erin’s Law on the books, with 18 more states where the matter is pending.

A majority of state representatives — 22 — signed onto HB233 as co-sponsors, and it passed the House Education Committee unanimously. It’s companion legislation in the senate, SB216, passed with unanimous support. Governor Sean Parnell and the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development stated their support, and were joined by the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and the All Alaska Pediatric Partnership.

The issue even made an appearance in a CNN editorial penned by John Sutter, who had spent significant time in the state studying and writing about Alaska’s struggles with sexual violence and domestic assault. Sutter also joined in praise of the bill.

However, when the 28th Legislature gaveled out on April 25, HB22 had not been taken up by its second committee of referral in the house.

“People were concentrating on the big issues that affected the state versus other issues that didn’t quite get to the top of the pot,” House Speaker Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) told KTOO’s Lisa Phu.

On Monday, Tarr announced plans to try again.

“I am committed to pushing Erin’s Law through passage. Our students need this essential personal body safety information,” Tarr said in a press release. “With the momentum from our work last session and broad bipartisan support I am confident this important legislation can pass early next session.”

That broad support now includes NEA-Alaska.

In order to successfully pass Erin’s Law in the upcoming session, Tarr will need the support of house and senate leadership. Incoming House Majority Leader Charisse Millett (R-Anchorage) was a co-sponsor of the bill last session and Senate President Kevin Meyer (R-Anchorage) voted for the senate bill. Neither responded to inquiry.

18 of the 21 previous co-sponsors in the House, plus Rep. Tarr, will be returning for the 29th Legislature. Senate membership largely remains the same, and Sen. Mia Costello (R-Anchorage), who served in the house last session, was a co-sponsor last year. Erin’s Law should have the support for speedy passage, as Tarr hopes. And she’s pre-filing well in advance of session to make sure it isn’t put on a backburner the second time around.