Tara Walker Lyons sometimes wonders how her life would have been different if her teachers had known what to say.
For the last year, Lyons has been the main push behind legislation that would create a policy allowing elementary schools to provide children with the tools they need to recognize sexual abuse and encourage them to reach out to a trusted adult to make it stop.
When Lyons was 12, she was sexually abused by a relative.
“My teachers didn’t know what to do back then,” the Hamilton woman said. “Many probably still don’t.”
HB 298 would change that.
Introduced by Rep. Ed Greef, R-Florence, the bill would create a policy that would encourage elementary schools to emphasize sexual abuse awareness and prevention.
Earlier this week, the legislation passed the House 91-9 following a unanimous vote in the House Education Committee.
Lyons watched the debate on the House floor from her Hamilton home.
“I’ve been watching the Legislature like a hawk,” she said. “I think this vote will pretty much set the tone for the rest of the process. I’m hoping we can expect the same reaction from the Senate and the governor.”
Greef said the vote was a “great endorsement for Tara and her efforts to make this happen.”
Lyons has spent the last year-and-a-half talking to groups that ranged from legislative committees to Montana state prisoners about the challenges that victims of childhood sexual abuse face.
She’s been an outspoken advocate of Erin’s Law, which requires all public schools to implement an age-specific, prevention-orientated, child sexual abuse education program that teaches kids they aren’t the ones who are doing something wrong.
Maryland was the 26th state to enact the law. There are a total of 47 states that either have the law in place or are taking some action on it.
“Montana would be the 27th,” Walker said. “I’m so excited about that possibility. I just know how much that it’s needed and how many people have been impacted so far.”
During the floor debate, Walker said she was taken by testimony offered by a legislator who told her colleagues that she was a teacher for many years.
“Basically, she said there was a student that she believed was being sexually assaulted,” Walker said. “She saw the signs and had the feeling that something was wrong, but because there was no policy or protocol in place, she didn’t intervene.
“She said that it came out years later that the girl was sexually abused,” Walker said. “She said that it remained one of her biggest regrets, if not the biggest regret of her career for not intervening. This legislation will empower our teachers to know what to do in case they see this happening.”
Greef said he was disappointed in the fact that he had to make changes in the proposed legislation to remove any state funding.
“With the (fiscal) situation that we’re facing, any bills that are going to the appropriations committee were being held or denied,” he said. “In order to keep the bill moving forward, I took out the funding with coordination of OPI.”
The legislation will establish the policy that will get the ball rolling in school districts across the state.
“It makes it known to school districts that they need to put this on their radar and they need to start working with their classroom teachers,” Greef said. “Maybe the next legislature can provide funding or OPI can add it into its budget.”
Greef believed the biggest hurdle the bill faced was in the House.
“There are more people and more debate,” he said. “There is a chance to be more partisan, but as it turned out, this was as bipartisan as it gets.
“Everyone wants to do the right thing for children,” Greef said. “This whole issue is so under the radar for most people. We don’t like to hear about or think about it. We just put it in a box and shove it to the back of our minds.”
That changed for Greef when Walker came to him and told him her story. He calls the legislation “Tara’s Bill.”
“I knew then that something needed to be done,” he said.
If the legislation passes, Walker said there is plenty of curriculum that’s already been created in other states that Montana’s schools could easily use.
“This has been a long time in coming,” Walker said. “Sometimes I dream about the day that the governor signs this bill. It feels like it’s in our sights. I hope to see it happen.”