Dozens of first-grade students were allegedly victimized by a teacher. Would “Erin’s Law” have kept them safe? Some say yes.

Springboro parents join call for sex-abuse classes for young students

“What’s taken so long?” asked one victim’s father.

John Austin Hopkins, 25, of Springboro, was indicted in June on 36 counts of gross sexual imposition involving 28 girls in his class at Clearcreek Elementary in Springboro.

Authorities said the indictment was issued after review of surveillance videos of “sufficiently questionable” incidents with 88 girls during gym class over at least four months.

Hopkins was released on house arrest after posting $150,000 bail on June 20. He is scheduled to return to court on Aug. 20 for a pretrial hearing.

Asked why the alleged sexual abuse was able to persist for four months, officials have pointed to the lack of understanding among the girls of what was sexual abuse and what to do when victimized.

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.

Ohio Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Delaware County, said he supported the law change but lacked the votes to pass it because the majority felt it would take away too much control from local districts.

The Springboro school district trained staff, but left early education about sexual abuse and prevention to parents, according to Scott Marshall, communications coordinator for the the Springboro Community City Schools.

“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.

While expressing understanding for lawmakers’ concerns about mandating the program and finding funding, Amy Fornshell, manager of the Child Advocacy Center of Warren County, supported the passage of Erin’s Law in Ohio.

“I absolutely think it’s something that can be implemented,” said Fornshell, suggesting awareness was the key to early detection of child sex abuse.

“I do think that is your best way to prevent things from happening or stopping them from happening earlier than later,” she said.

Merryn said she was the sex-abuse victim of two different relatives as a child. (In 90 percent of cases, children are sexually abused by someone they know and trust, she said.)

Merryn’s experience drove her to champion passage of Erin’s Law, which mandates continuing sex-abuse training in schools, starting with the youngest students, so they know who and what to look out for.

“It’s often not that creepy man you need to be worried about,” Merryn said.

Adopting the law would have at least minimized the Hopkins case, she said.

“I guarantee you, we would not be seeing the number,” she said. “These kids would have been empowered.”

Merryn said she testified before Ohio lawmakers in 2014, and the bill passed the House of Representatives.

In the Ohio Senate, “it has died in committee every single year.”

In February 2018, Merryn said she testified at a Senate committee hearing and looked forward to a vote that never happened.

“For the fifth year, it died in Ohio,” she said, adding Ohio was now one of three states without a sponsor for Erin’s Law.

“It shouldn’t take some horrific story,” she said.

In addition to a language for and understanding of sex abuse, the continued training can prepare students for “grooming,” which Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell accused Hopkins of in the Springboro case.

In this way, abusers can gradually lure victims and convince them not to tell anyone what is happening.

In response to concerns about funding, Merryn said federal law had been passed to pay for curriculum and pointed to advocacy centers as places where the training could be provided.

In Warren County, Amy Fornshell said the Kings Local Schools was the only district to offer sex-abuse prevention training.

“I think this takes time,” said Amy Fornshell, the prosecutor’s wife.

She said Erin’s Law would help fight child-sex abuse, but added that parents should also take a role.

“As soon as children start talking, you can start teaching them the language,” Amy Fornshell said.

Erin’s Law was about to become law in New York, she said.

“I hope that we can find a way to implement it,” Amy Fornshell said, adding advocacy centers across Ohio could help setting the programs up in the school districts.

“The sooner we can provide this information to kids and their families, ” she added, “the better we’ll be as a state.”

The parents of one alleged victim described the continuing “roller coaster of emotion” following a call from Springboro police that their daughter was part of the case.

They accused Hopkins manipulating the girls and talked of going to Columbus to lobby state lawmakers.

“I guess this is the world we’re in now. Why not educate them?” the mother said.

In addition, the parents urged the school district to make changes.

“It’s really affected our entire family and the entire community, because it happened to so many people,” the girl’s mother said.

News Center 7’s Molly Koweek contributed to this report.

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