Tennessee Law Leaves Many Schools Afraid to Teach Sexual Abuse Prevention

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Tennessee Law Leaves Many Schools Afraid to Teach Sexual Abuse Prevention

S. Heather Duncan

Teachers and school systems fear running afoul of the gateway law, which allows teachers to be fined up to $500 for discussing “gateway sexual activity” in the classroom.

Five years after the Tennessee legislature slammed the gate on classroom conversations about any sexual activity, some are questioning whether this “gateway law” also locked out sexual abuse prevention. Despite a subsequent law encouraging schools to teach about sexual abuse, many still don’t, potentially leaving children without tools to protect themselves.

The question has become more pressing as recent lawsuits and police investigations of sexual assaults among students in Tennessee have made headlines nationally. This summer, an elite private school failed to report or respond to a student’s allegations of being raped by other students in a locker room; a similar East Tennessee case involving high school basketball team members has been winding its way through the courts for the last year. In Knoxville in 2016, two high school administrators were suspended for failing to promptly report a student receiving sexually explicit pictures from a coach’s wife, who this fall pleaded guilty to statutory rape.

These cases have exposed gaps in schools’ understanding of the legal requirement to promptly report sexual abuse and assault. They also highlight how little is taught to public school students or staff about sexual abuse prevention—despite a 2014 state law that endorsed (but did not require) adding it to the curriculum.

Reluctance to teach sexual abuse prevention is at least partly due to teachers’ and school systems’ fear of running afoul of the gateway law, which allows teachers to be fined up to $500 for discussing “gateway sexual activity” in the classroom. Advocates of the gateway law had claimed concern about children being taught details of oral sex or sex between people of the same gender, so in 2012 the law went into effect, establishing curriculum, what teachers can say, and how they can be punished for saying more.

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“Folks are still unclear about the limits of this law,” said Tory Mills, external affairs manager at Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee. “We have to create an environment where kids feel like they can report these things and be able to say the words of what has happened to them,” she said. “But we are creating an environment of distrust. The law is absolutely one piece of this, because we think teachers are really afraid of talking about sex health topics.”

Tennessee law currently limits sex education to an “abstinence-centered” curriculumwhich sexual health educators say is not effectiveand even that isn’t required except in counties with a high teen birth rate (where there are more than 19.5 pregnancies per 1,000 girls under age 18). More than half the school districts that met the criteria in 2017 are in the Appalachian counties of the state, and almost all are rural.

Erin’s Law and Preventing Sexual Abuse

About 1 in 4 girls, and 1 in 6 boys, suffer sexual abuse, according to research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and distributed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The law supporting sexual abuse prevention in schools is often called “Erin’s Law,” after childhood sexual assault survivor and activist Erin Merryn. Merryn’s campaign to educate children, teachers, and parents about sexual abuse has led to laws in 31 states. Tennessee’s version is weaker than the requirements in states like Connecticut, Maryland, and Louisiana, which mandate some combination of sexual abuse prevention coursework for all staff, age-appropriate lessons for students, and a clear system for children to report sexual abuse.

The Tennessee Department of Education provided schools with recommendations about curricula and resources that could be used to teach both children and staff about recognizing and preventing sexual abuse. But Cary Rayson, community engagement coordinator at Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee, where part of her job is to educate adults about child sexual abuse, noted that no funding was attached to Erin’s Law to implement the lessons. And according to Chandler Hopper, deputy director of communications for the education department, it doesn’t monitor how many or which districts teach about sexual abuse.

After Erin’s Law passed, the Sexual Assault Center—a statewide advocacy and education organization—began providing its “Safe at Last” sexual abuse curriculum for elementary school children for free, says Kim Janacek, education curriculum manager for the center. About 49 school districts in Tennessee are using it, but only nine are in the Appalachian region of the state, she said. The lessons reached about 200,000 students last year, up from 75,000 before the law passed.

Rayson said that in Tennessee, the energy behind Erin’s Law emerged from the fight against sex trafficking. “But they didn’t look at the ways that public school people are afraid that, knowingly or unknowingly, they might violate the gateway legislation,” she said. “It just gets really fuzzy when you start talking about middle and high school kids. It’s hard to talk about boundaries and safe relationships without wading into something that might not be abstinence before marriage.”

Since the gateway law doesn’t apply to adult learners, it doesn’t interfere with training school staff to recognize and prevent sexual abuse. Still, most school districts don’t require that—except for briefly teaching staff what they are legally required to report to authorities.  

“Any good prevention effort is not about liability,” Rayson said. “Policy and procedure is about liability. The goal of prevention should be that no child is ever one-on-one with an adult or another, more powerful kid in a situation that can’t be interrupted or observed.”

Hemmed In

Knox County, which is home to both the largest city in the Appalachian region of the state and to the University of Tennessee, is a good case study in the effects of the gateway law and the slow adoption of Erin’s Law.

Although the state attorney general provided a legal opinion that the gateway law couldn’t be used to fine public health workers invited to speak at schools, in practice, local health departments have mostly stopped speaking to school groups anyway, according to Rayson and local public health officials.

Within the last year, Knox County has begun offering a voluntary training video to educators made by the county health department. The video features local abuse treatment experts explaining how predators operate, why kids don’t tell, and indicators of sexual abuse.

Knox County Schools spokeswoman Carly Harrington said in an email to Rewire that the district encourages all teachers and staff to watch the video, but it’s not required. Knox County Schools teach elementary and middle school students about sexual abuse prevention, she said, although she did not provide any detail about what curriculum is used.

The gateway law is just one symptom of the cultural reluctance to have conversations with young people about sex, a reluctance which has played out publicly in Knox County. Although its teen birth rate doesn’t make sex education mandatory, the school district still teaches it as part of the state’s “family life” curriculum. But at about the same time the gateway law passed, Knox County Schools stopped inviting outside educators to present the lessons, after a parent complained about Planned Parenthood being a presenter.

Instead, the district hired an outside educator to join its staff and handle sex education at all schools that request it—and 90 percent do, Harrington said. The new presenter had previously worked as an abstinence educator for the Christian-based “Just Wait” program, and many portions of his presentation remained unchanged.

In the following years, some parents and students complained that the presentation placed the responsibility for abstinence on women, downplayed the effectiveness of birth control and condom use, and used degrading language about women paired with sexist jokes.

Two years ago, several female graduates of a district high school started a critical group called “Just Educate,” which conducted an online student survey and made a film of students expressing their criticisms of Knox County’s approach to sex education. In Just Educate’s (admittedly unscientific) voluntary survey of 210 students, 64 percent described the sex education unit as “completely negative” and 36 percent reported feeling targeted or blamed by the educator.

Harrington has stated in emails that the presentation is regularly reviewed by a school district supervisor and has never been found to contain any inappropriate content.

Just Educate leaders met with school district officials about their concerns, but little changed. Several parents saw the Just Wait campaign and chimed in last year, meeting with district officials about their concerns and asking that students be given a formal survey after the presentation to gauge its effectiveness. Knox County Schools piloted this with teachers and a small group of middle school students in spring. Results show the feedback was mostly positive.

But parents such as Beth Cooper have continued to push for changes. She said the district agreed to add a few slides related to the impacts of pregnancy and STDs on teen boys, although only one was actually included. She said she still finds the presenter’s delivery “super-problematic” in its subtle sexism and its emphasis on the failure rates and side effects of birth control.

“We want an evidence-based curriculum package by someone else,” she said. “I’m about ready to go back to the state about the abstinence curriculum.”

Cooper added that she thinks the district administrators would like to change their approach, but feel hemmed in. “They feel more restricted by state law than they actually are,” she said.

Abuse prevention advocates are preparing to launch a campaign before the end of the year, pushing for an amendment to the gateway law when the state legislature goes back to work in January. Rayson says her organization has been meeting with other nonprofits—such as the YWCA and the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence—to draft suggested changes to the law’s language and explain why they’re needed.

“We’d really like to see adults feel comfortable and empowered to provide this kind of education to children and to teens,” said Rayson. She said nonprofits like hers have been told by school districts around Nashville that teaching sexual abuse prevention just “doesn’t feel safe given what we know about the gateway legislation.”