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Elementary schools in Utah would be able to provide instruction on preventing child-sexual abuse under a bill that won unanimous support in a House committee Wednesday.
HB286, would allow school districts and charter schools to train school personnel, elementary students and their parents or guardians in child sexual abuse prevention.
Of the 4,622 reported Utah cases of child-sexual abuse in 2013, 39 percent involved a victim under 10 years old, and 14 percent of cases involved a child under age 5, according to a report from the Utah Department of Human Services.
Of the perpetrators in confirmed cases of child sexual abuse in 2013, 66 percent were parents or relatives of the victim, according to the Department of Human Services.
The bill, now on its way to the full House, targets elementary-age students because many junior highs and high schools already have programs in place, said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City.
"The sooner you teach children how to protect themselves, it might help them get out of a situation," Romero said.
Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted from her home at age 14 and held in captivity by Brian Mitchell for nine months from 2002-2003, testified in support of the bill.
"I begged and pleaded and cried, praying that I could get away," Smart said of her kidnapping. "[Mitchell] would say, 'You're my wife, and we need to consummate the marriage,' and that's how he eventually pulled me onto the ground, ripped off my clothes, and raped me."
Smart said if she had been taught about child-sexual abuse, she would have been more prepared.
"I would have had a choice instead of feeling like my only option was to go with this man, instead of feeling like my only option was to be raped," she said.
Smart, who travels around the country speaking about sexual abuse and last year published a memoir of her nine-month ordeal, said she believes if abuse victims know they have options, they are more likely to get away.
Ed Smart, Elizabeth's father, also spoke in support of the bill. He said he didn't know how to prepare his children to prevent sexual abuse.
"In not exposing children to life, I think we do a disservice to them in not allowing them to be prepared," Smart said. "One of my mantras is 'be prepared, not scared.' "
Lawmakers asked few questions about the bill after an amendment was adopted to make the training permissive schools may provide it a change from the original version which would have required the instruction. Others from the public opposed the bill, two of them mothers with concerns that programs like these instill unnecessary fear of adults in children.
"Do we throw a blanket out there that in their mind puts every adult as a predator, even those within their own family?" said Diane Kenison. "Every time a parent works with a child, and tries to dress them or care for them, is that going to put in the child's mind some devious act?"
Laura Bunker, president of United Families International said she supports the bill because parents can keep their children out of the programs. The opt-out provisionwas added as an amendment after the bill was discussed in the committee last week.
But Bunker said in an interview she still has reservations about the possible law.
"We don't want to plant in most children's minds that their parents are dangerous. We want to reinforce that their parents are the protector," she said.
Bunker said United Families International hopes to see schools informing parents about programs beforehand so parents can make a better decision about whether to send their children.
"The whole goal is to provide children with the tools to protect themselves," Romero said. "Many times we teach kids what you do in an earthquake, and we're always talking about stranger danger, but we're not talking about the people around us."
Of the perpetrators in confirmed cases of child sexual abuse in 2013, about half were parents or relatives of the victim, according to the Department of Human Services.