Parents dissatisfied by the prison sentence for former Springboro teacher John Austin Hopkins have helped revive lawmakers’ focus on passage of a bill that would mandate sex-abuse prevention education for Ohio’s youngest public-school students.
The parents are also moving ahead with a federal lawsuit against Hopkins, the Springboro school district and administrators stemming from Hopkins’ actions during his first-grade gym classes.
Hopkins, sentenced last week to eight years in prison on 27 counts of gross sexual imposition on girls during gym classes, remained in the Warren County Jail on Tuesday.
Four on-line petitions have gathered thousands of supporters for proposals ranging from a death sentence for Hopkins to removal of the sentencing judge to sentencing reform to the passage of a version of Erin’s Law in Ohio.
Lipps said he hoped to move ahead with the bill after the summer break in the Ohio legislature’s schedule, in part powered by support from the Springboro-area parents.
“Once it hit Springboro, I had a ton of constituents say, ‘Is there anything you can do?’” Lipps, R-Franklin, said. “We’ve got legislation moving through the legislature.”
Since 2014, Ohio lawmakers have considered bills mandating sex-abuse education for all students, according to Erin Merryn, an Illinois-based advocate who has promoted passage of Erin’s Law in 36 states.
In 2019, Lipps said the bill — with support from the Springboro parents — was stopped by opposition from both political parties.
The Springboro school district trains staff, but leaves early education about sexual abuse and prevention to parents, Scott Marshall, communications coordinator for the the Springboro Community City Schools, said in 2019.
“Given the age of the students, pre-school through first grade, the district’s belief, in conjunction with Springboro Schools’ Mental Health Services Dept., is that this type of education is typically suited to begin at home, where each individual family can decide what is an appropriate education level for that specific age,” Marshall said in response to questions at the time.
In late 2019, in response to the Hopkins case, in the beginning of the past school year, Clearcreek Elementary added “Child Safety Matters,” a program designed to help first-graders recognize and respond to child abuse. It also encompasses bullying and cyberbullying and offers the parents the opportunity to opt out of this curriculum.
In addition, the first round of semi-annual surveys of parents and students at all Springboro elementaries were completed to offer a way for families to report any concerns or other feedback.
Having rewritten the bill to remove controversial sections and calmed other concerns, Lipps said the parents’ interest also helped get the law change back on track in the House’s Education Committee.
“I think we at least have a chance with the bill,” he said. The current version also calls for sexual violence training for junior high and high school students, Lipps said.
The idea behind the law change is that the little girls victimized would have raised alarms sooner and reduced the number of victims, if well educated on how to recognize sexual touching and what to do about it.
The investigation resulting in the criminal case was triggered in March 2019 when a girl came home excited to have gotten to sit on Hopkins’ lap. It identified 88 potential victims and resulted in 36 felony charges involving 28 girls; and guilty verdicts on 34 charges involving 27 girls.
The cases were largely based on surveillance video from a film loop of Hopkins’ classes at Clearcreek Elementary School from December 2018 to March 2019. Previous video was erased as the loop restarted.
On Tuesday, the lawyer representing the parents in the federal lawsuit said the judge had ruled on motions clearing the way for the case to move forward.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to move ahead full steam in the near future,” Attorney Angela Wallace said.
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