MISSOULA — Tara Walker Lyons remembers feeling hopeful last April when Gov. Steve Bullock signed the law that would provide the groundwork for teachers to truly begin addressing childhood sexual abuse.
While that hope hasn’t faded completely away, Lyons believes her journey to ensure that children are equipped with the knowledge they need to keep abusers at bay still may have a long way to go.
“As far as I can tell, there aren’t any programs available yet through OPI (Office of Public Instruction),” she said. “I’m not really sure where it’s headed at this point. There’s no handbook that I can read to see that happens after that happens. This has never been done in this state before.”
When the state Legislature passed HB 298 — which its sponsor later named Tara’s Law — it joined 45 other states that already had taken the step to require that information about childhood sexual abuse be taught in the schools.
Unlike most of those other states, Montana’s law isn’t a mandate and it didn’t include any funding to develop a curriculum or hire the people needed to provide training, the Missoulian reported .
So far, OPI has created a new webpage focused on sex trafficking and sexual abuse that gives educators a place to read the new law and see the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ guidelines for identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect.
But that’s about all that’s happened.
Dylan Klapmeier, OPI’s communication’s director, said the agency is working to develop a new mandatory reporting class that teachers can take as part of their required courses for certification renewal, but currently there isn’t anyone working on developing a curriculum for schools. Klapmeier expects that will get underway sometime after the first of the year.
Flathead County School Superintendent Jack Eggensperger said he hasn’t seen anything from OPI about developing a policy to address the new law.
“Quite frankly, I wasn’t very aware of anything about this particular bill,” Eggensperger said.
There hasn’t been any discussion about the issue in the Northwest Montana Curriculum Consortium meetings that he’s attended. None of the school districts he works with directly have made any inquiries.
“If there was new curriculum, that would typically come down through OPI,” he said. “I haven’t heard anything about implementation yet.”
Rep. Ed Greef, R-Florence, sponsored the bill. He’s not surprised that it’s taking time for the idea to catch hold.
When he introduced the bill initially, it included $1.5 million in funding. Due to the tight budget facing the Legislature, Greef said he was forced to remove that fiscal note in order to get the legislation passed.
It’s his hope that OPI will fund the effort in the next round of budgeting as a line item.
“I look for the funding to happen the next session,” Greef said. “If it doesn’t happen then, then the session after that. Once it has funding, I think some more districts will show interest.”
Greef is opposed to requiring schools to offer the educational program that would help young children understand the difference between right and wrong touching and teach them how to seek out a trusted adult to talk to when abuse occurs.
“I don’t think mandating needs to be part of the solution,” Greef said. “I think it’s the school district’s teachers and board who need to be the ones requesting the material they need. It needs to originate at the local level.”
Greef has talked with a number of local teachers, both still working in schools and retired, about the issue.
“I haven’t spoken to a teacher yet who isn’t aware of the need and who wouldn’t welcome having the additional resources,” he said. “The interest from the teachers is very sincere. They desire it.”
Lyons saw that, too, when she spoke to a group of teachers and counselors at a recent training session in Missoula.
Lyons was 12 when she was sexually abused by a relative. The realization of just how deeply that abuse affected her life didn’t come until years later when she was treated for abusing alcohol. While she was in treatment, she discovered that she wasn’t alone.
“I was nervous standing in front of all of these educators,” Lyons said. “I’m a college drop-out and all I had to share was my experience. I hope to show them how important it is to report. That it doesn’t take proof or disclosure. Suspicion is enough to place that first report.”
Lyons has given her speech to prisoners, lawmakers and almost anyone else who will listen. Over the past couple of years, she’s seen other young sexual abuse victims become emboldened to add their own testimonies in an effort to get this educational piece in place.
She plans to be back in Helena when the Legislature reconvenes in 2019.
The original idea of requiring that childhood sexual abuse prevention be taught in school began with author and activist Erin Merryn, who was molested by a family member between the ages of 11 and 13. Nationally, the law is called “Erin’s Law.”
Lyons said Merryn told her early on that for the law to be effective, it has to be mandated.
“At the end of the day, we just didn’t think we could get that this first time around,” Lyons said. “Parents can always opt out of having their kids take the classes. We don’t want to shove anything (down) anyone’s throat. Every parent wants the best for their child unless they are the ones abusing the child.
“I plan to go back and keep working,” she said. “Schools are beginning to reach out to me. I know that this isn’t over. We just have to keep pushing forward.”?