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Elizabeth Smart, Deondra Brown on hand to watch as child sexual abuse prevention bill passes House with applause

Published: Thursday, Feb. 27 2014 2:55 p.m. MST

Elizabeth Smart speaks to the media after HB 286 was passed in the House at the state Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. The bill would allow elementary schools to teach sexual abuse prevention to students, parents and teachers.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Elizabeth Smart and Deondra Brown looked on as the votes rolled in on a bill that would allow elementary schools to teach child sexual abuse prevention to students, parents and teachers.

The screen filled up with 73 green names, and the two survivors of abuse hugged and joined in the applause as the House passed HB286 unanimously Thursday morning. The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Bill sponsor Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill would "empower" children, their parents and educators to confront sexual abuse. It would require some sort of training or information be given to all school personnel for kindergarten through 12th grade, as well as parents.

The bill would not, however, require schools to provide a training program for students. HB286 states that elementary schools may provide prevention education but must notify parents and give them an option to opt out.

"Nobody wants to think about any harm coming to their children, let alone abuse," Romero said. "But the reality is that child abuse happens every six minutes in the United States."

Romero said the training would facilitate tough conversations between parents and children, while arming both with necessary tools for child sexual abuse prevention. She said the bill would also help teachers be first responders, training them to spot the signs of abuse.

"For a child to be able to stand up and say 'no,' and have those skills to escape, have the ability to fight back, to go to find someone that they trust, that will save them. That will make a difference," said Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped in 2002 at the age of 14.

Smart and her father, Ed Smart, sat in the balcony of the House chambers with Brown, one of five siblings who make up the classical piano ensemble The 5 Browns.

Brown and her two sisters were sexually abused many times by their father, Keith Brown, between 1990 and 1998. Keith Brown is serving a 10-years-to-life sentence in the Utah State Prison after pleading guilty in February 2011 to sodomy on a child, a first-degree felony, and two counts of sex abuse of a child, a second-degree felony.

Deondra Brown later said she told Elizabeth Smart when they hugged, "It's a victory for children."

The bill was amended to allow parents to attend instruction of their children. However, two efforts to change the opt-out option to an opt-in option failed during discussion on the House floor.

House Minority Leader Jen Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, noted that about three-fourths of reported cases of child sexual abuse are committed by family members or others in a child's circle of trust.

"If we make this amendment, we’re asking members of the majority group of people who commit these atrocious acts to give permission to children to learn how to defend themselves. That just doesn’t make sense at all," Seelig said, shaking her head.

The idea of an opt-in process concerned Brown, who said her parents wouldn't have opted her in and that she wouldn't have been able to receive the training.

"I can guarantee you that if I had heard a program like this in school, that I would have known what to say, known to say 'no,' known what was normal, what was not normal," Brown said. "And I think it would have brought me forward a lot sooner and made me stand up for myself in that situation."

Brown added that she hopes her 3-year-old daughter will be able to benefit from the bill when she reaches elementary school.

Romero said abuse prevention education would help children know how to "stand up and speak out," adding that only 1 in 10 abused children tells somebody.

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