SALT LAKE CITY — Silence filled the House committee room Wednesday morning when the woman beginning to testify was asked to state her full name: "Elizabeth Smart."
"As a kid, I was told a lot of things," Smart said. "I was told, 'Don’t cross the street without looking both ways.' I was told, 'If you ever catch on fire, stop, drop and roll.' But I was never told what I should do if I was faced with abduction or abuse."
Smart and her father, Ed, attended the House Health and Human Services Committee meeting to lend support to a bill that calls for elementary schools to provide training on child sexual abuse prevention.
After hearing compelling testimony from the Smarts and others, the committee passed HB286 on to the full House with a unanimous vote. The bill, as amended, would make the training optional for schools.
"I think it’s a starting point. It allows local schools to decide whether they want to provide the curriculum. And parents, if they don’t feel comfortable with it, can opt out," said Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, the bill's sponsor.
Diane Robertson, a North Salt Lake mother of nine who is expecting another child, told state lawmakers she has hesitations about the bill but is glad to see it no longer mandated the training programs. When asked if she would opt out of a program for her children, Robertson said it would depend on the child.
Romero said schools in Utah, Tooele and Grand counties have already implemented such programs. She said schools wanting to participate could look to those districts for a model, especially to ensure children don't come away thinking every adult is a predator.
"I have learned that over 80 percent of children who are given choices, who are given options about fighting back, about saying no, about realizing when that line has been crossed, they’re able to get away," Elizabeth Smart said.
Testimony centered on the idea that parents are responsible for teaching their children about sexual abuse prevention, but they aren't always equipped to do so.
HB286 would provide training for teachers as well as parents to learn how to talk about it with children.
"I feel, as many parents out there, I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to teach my children," Ed Smart said. "And parents are certainly an integral part of this very important issue, but I think that to have a life-skills program where it's taught in the school system, nothing could be more important."
He said the bill matches his mantra of "be prepared, not scared" and would help children identify behaviors that could be potentially harmful.
Both Ed and Elizabeth Smart talked about the importance of being proactive and having prevention education.
"We do need to talk about it, and school is a great place to start. It's a great starting point to open the door to having that conversation at home," Elizabeth Smart said.
She said prevention education would help children know what to do and feel like they have options if they're ever in a "terrible situation."
"We’re always talking about 'stranger danger,' but we’re not talking about the people around us," Romero said. "And 94 percent of the kids that are sexually abused in Utah are sexually abused by somebody they know. And out of proven cases, 72 percent of those perpetrators are the parent."
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