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As Elizabeth Smart watches, Utah House passes sex abuse bill

Published February 27, 2014 5:24 pm

Prevention • Would allow child sex abuse prevention education in elementary schools.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As former kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart watched from the balcony — and was applauded by lawmakers — the House approved a bill Thursday that would allow elementary schools to instruct parents and kids on preventing child sexual abuse.

HB286 passed 73-0 and was sent to the Senate.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, quoted Smart during the debate and said such education might have helped her avoid being abducted for nine months at age 14 in 2002 by Brian David Mitchell.

Romero quoted Smart saying, "We are taught to look both ways when crossing the street. We are taught to stop, drop and roll when there is a fire. We need to teach children how to say 'No, this is wrong and I am uncomfortable.' "

After the vote, Smart told reporters that "children need to be prepared. They need to know what their options are, what their choices are so that when they are faced with someone abusing them, or someone trying to kidnap them, that they do know that they have another choice."

Smart has helped push the bill, testifying for it in earlier hearings.

"Child abuse happens every six minutes in the United States," Romero told the House. "It is our responsibility, as parents, to be prepared for even the unthinkable. .... It's because these conversations are hard we should provide training for parents."

HB286 would allow school districts and charter schools to train school personnel, elementary students and their parents or guardians about child sexual-abuse prevention. It would permit parents to attend the instruction allow them to opt out their children from such presentations.

Romero noted she has had opposition from some who worry the programs could confuse kids about the difference between appropriate affection and abuse. She said because only one of every 10 kids now reports abuse, "they are already confused."

Because of such concerns, some House members unsuccessfully attempted to amend the bill to require parents to sign papers to opt children in for instruction. As presently written, the bill allows the programs to be offered unless parents opt out.

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, an attorney whose job has included advising Mormon leaders on abuse cases, praised the bill. He said kids should be "encouraged this is something they can talk about and should talk about. … They need to learn to be assertive, to stand up and speak out and get out of a situation" that may lead to abuse.

Smart agreed, with comments to reporters after the vote. "It's still important for children to respect adults. … But they also need to realize when an adult is taking advantage of them, when they are crossing that line and it is not OK."

Of the 4,622 reported Utah cases of child sexual abuse in 2013, 39 percent involved a victim under age 10, and 14 percent involved a child under 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 report.