ATLANTIC CITY — As a little girl, Erin Merryn knew to beware of the man who drove up to her lemonade stand and offered her change to come over to his van. But she didn’t know what to do about the sexual assaults she suffered for years.
Now, her Erin’s Law is in 27 states, where schools are required to educate children on sexual abuse prevention.
She was the keynote speaker Thursday at the International Child Assault Prevention Conference held in Caesars Atlantic City.
Education and support are all part of helping children be safe, strong and free, said Jeannette Collins, director of programming for NJ Child Assault Prevention.
“That’s our motto,” Collins said of the three-part promise.
Erin’s Law already has done that.
Merryn told the story of a girl whose father was eventually arrested after she came forward following an Erin’s Law class. Two girl cousins in Illinois — Merryn’s homestate — separately told about the abuse by their uncle after they had a prevention class.
The mom of one — with a second due soon — says she believes if this had been available to her, she wouldn’t have waited until she was 13 to come forward. And she wouldn’t have been so surprised that people immediately believed her.
New Jersey needs to become the 28th state to pass the law, Merryn told those in attendance Thursday.
“I had been taught about stranger danger,” she said. “But child sexual abuse is something we don’t want to talk about.”
The state’s Child Assault Prevention does give these classes, but they are not mandated. Funding is available for the education, which includes teachers and parents, Collins said.
Other seminars Thursday included human trafficking and gun violence.
Each year nearly a million students bring a firearm to school nationwide, said Jeffrey Gale, schools security specialist for the state Department of Education’s School Preparedness and Emergency Planning.
“This is of paramount importance,” said Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain, who attended the Students and Gun Violence presentation. “One of the continuing problems is the availability of guns.”
For both schools years 2005-06 and 2006-07, there were 3,028 students expelled for bringing a weapon to school, Gale said. Of those, 55 percent each year were handguns.
By the time a prosecution happens, the tragedy has already happened, McClain said.
“Prevention always is preferable to prosecution,” he said.