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As a new school year gets underway, schools in Maine are implementing a 2015 state law that makes education on sexual abuse part of the curriculum for young children.

The 2015 law, sponsored by then-Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, requires that public school districts adopt written policies instituting education on sexual abuse prevention for their youngest students. The law required that the Maine Department of Education, working with sexual assault prevention organizations and others, develop a model policy that school districts could adopt as their own.

That model policy is now available, and it calls for age-appropriate education on child sexual abuse prevention to become a part of what’s taught in school health classes. Training for school administrators, school nurses and teachers on the model policy, curriculum and more will start in the coming months.

Adopting the policy will be an important step for school districts. What’s more important is that it actually prompts change in the classroom and helps schools foster a culture in which children recognize what sexual abuse is and feel comfortable telling a trusted adult at school that they’ve experienced abuse. Just as important, that school culture should then send the signal that employees have the responsibility to take appropriate action when they hear such an allegation, and report it.

When the proposal for the law came before the Maine Legislature in 2015, the testimony supporting it highlighted some important points.

First, children who have been sexually abused might not recognize that they have, in fact, been the victims of a crime, and that the abuse they’ve suffered is not their fault.

“Had I been taught to speak up and not keep this a secret, on what a safe touch and unsafe touch is, a safe secret and an unsafe secret, I feel I would have spoken up from the start instead of being abused for years as a child,” Erin Merryn, a Chicago-area activist and sexual assault survivor, told Maine legislators in testimony.

Merryn, who’s pushed for laws requiring sex abuse prevention education in all 50 states, suffered sexual abuse throughout much of her childhood — first, molestation and rape by a friend’s uncle, and later by a teenage cousin.

Second, sexual abuse is rarely reported, so it can easily happen under the radar. That’s why it’s important for teachers, school counselors, nurses and others to recognize the signs that a child has suffered abuse. That recognition requires a concerted effort at education of school staff.

Robbinston native Kayla Garriott’s testimony related the tale of years of abuse, incest and rape by her biological father, starting when she was a 10-year-old in fourth grade.

Her father “swore her to secrecy, and told her that if she ever told a soul that she would be the one in trouble,” Garriott recounted to legislators in her written testimony, referring to herself in the third person. “He was firm on this, and you could see the fear in her eyes.”

Garriott recorded the abuse in her journal, which her mother eventually discovered. “Her mother was horrified but believed in her child, and was going to fight until she slayed this terrible dragon or her so-called father,” she continued in her third-person telling. Garriott’s father was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2009.

“Kayla was never taught what sexual abuse was, she was not taught inappropriate and appropriate touch in school,” her testimony read. “Some may argue that it is the parent’s responsibility to teach their children, when in reality statistics will tell you parents are often the ones to commit these crimes.”

Education is a force that can empower young sexual abuse victims to know that what has happened to them is wrong, and that they have the right to speak up about it. Similarly, training for school staff can help employees recognize signs of abuse and know what to do when they’re aware of abuse or suspect it has happened.

A policy on sexual abuse prevention curriculum is a strong start. The education that follows, both for students and for staff, is what will matter most.

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