In September and October, Forest Park School District 91 will hold its fifth annual Erin’s Law presentation for all students from kindergarten through eighth grade in the district. In 2011, Illinois passed Erin’s Law, which mandates that all public schools educate children about sexual abuse, instruct teachers on the issue, and provide resources and information for parents.
“The goal of the program is to teach students about safe and unsafe touch and empower students to speak up,” said Michelle Hopper, director of Student Services at D91, in an email. She also said it helps adults use common language with students when talking about the issue of sexual abuse.
D91 provides information to parents ahead of time, but parents and guardians are also welcome to attend the presentation. Additionally, parents have the right to opt-out of having their children participate in the program.
The district will host Victor Pacini for the fourth year to direct the program for students. Pacini, who was born in Chicago and has lived in the area his whole life, started the Be Seen and Heard program to instruct children about sexual abuse. A victim of sexual childhood abuse himself, it’s been his goal to give kids a voice and the confidence and ability to speak out about it.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” said Pacini. “A lot of times, parents have blinders when it comes to sexual abuse of children. They think it won’t happen to their child.” He wants parents to be aware that it does happen and is often underreported. “I want parents to have the awareness of the issue and be able to start conversations with their kids.”
To ensure the program is age appropriate, he focuses a lot on the terminology used during the presentations. A father of three, he doesn’t want to overwhelm kids, and he wants to be sure he speaks to them at a level they understand. For children in kindergarten through second grade, he uses the terms “safe touch” and “unsafe touch” and focuses on “safe secrets” versus “unsafe secrets.”
“Safe secrets don’t hurt anyone,” said Pacini. For example, he said, it’s OK to keep it secret that another child is going to be Spiderman for Halloween. But unsafe secrets are those regarding situations that could hurt someone. And, he added, secrets don’t just refer to sexual abuse. He wants kids to feel confident in all aspects of their life and share with a trusted adult any time something is preventing them from being their “full selves.”
In third and fourth grade he uses the terminology “inappropriate touch.” And in fifth grade and above, he begins to use the term “sexual abuse” because the children are old enough and mature enough to understand fully what that term means.
Since starting the Be Seen and Heard program in 2014, at least 145 students from all the schools at which he presents have come forward, either to him or to teachers or counselors who gave him feedback, to report incidents of sexual abuse.
Erin’s Law is named after, and was promoted by, Erin Merryn, a victim and survivor of childhood sexual assault (CSA). She is now an author, speaker and activist who pushed for the law to be passed in her home state of Illinois. It has since been passed in the majority of states.
The Erin’s Law Task Force, created by Governor Pat Quinn in 2011, developed a report investigating the problem of CSA and recommending what a law regarding the issue should contain. Among their findings was that “1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be the victim of CSA by their 18th birthday.” They also stated that “93 percent of the time these children are abused by a person who is supposed to protect them; a person in a position of trust or authority.” What makes the issue more difficult is that children, often believing the abuse was their fault or out of fear of repercussions from the abuser, don’t report the assault right away.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Pacini about the kids who report abuse. “It’s sad that kids are going through this, but I’m happy they are not voiceless any longer.”