The Office of Public Instruction will not create a curriculum that Montana teachers can use to address childhood sexual abuse in their classrooms.
OPI Communications Director Dylan Klapmeier said HB 298 — which its sponsor later named Tara’s Law — doesn’t recommend or require that agency create a curriculum for the school districts.
“There were many versions of the bill discussed and debated and many people who wanted curriculum, but that isn’t what ended up passing,” Klapmeier said. “Curriculum is created at the local level currently.”
Instead, Klapmeier said OPI will focus on creating classes that address childhood sexual abuse for educators to take as part of their continuing education requirements.
Tara Walker Lyons said if OPI won’t create the curriculum, she’ll look for other partners who will.
The legislation came about after Lyons went to Helena to meet with lawmakers about the need to prevent childhood sexual abuse through education. Lyons was abused when she was 12 years old by a relative and has become an outspoken advocate for the need for early education to prevent that abuse.
The legislation’s supporters had hoped it would provide the springboard for Montana to join the 45 other states that have already taken the step to require schools to teach young children about the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching and how to reach out to the proper adults for help.
“The next legislative session won’t meet until 2019,” Lyons said. “Sitting on our hands for two years is not an option, at least not for me. … I’m not a person to sit back and say ‘darn.’ I know we need to work together to create an actual outcome that accomplishes what we set out to do.”
As a first step, Lyons said she will reach out to officials at Hamilton’s child advocacy center, Emma’s House, to see if there is a possibility of the state’s child advocacy centers working together to create a curriculum that could be offered to school districts for their consideration.
“This is definitely a hit and it definitely sets me back a little bit, but at the same time, it’s not a surprise,” she said. “There was no money attached to the bill. …I am encouraged by the fact that OPI has posted the bill on its website. I know we’re not being ignored. I feel like their hands are tied because of the money. We have to hope that we can come up with something in the interim. When we have that, we’ll approach OPI and see what they think.
“We just want to get everyone on the same page and get this to the schools,” Lyons said.
As passed, HB 298 doesn’t require OPI to really do anything. There is no mandate or funding that accompanied the legislation that “encouraged” OPI to increase awareness and prevention of child sexual abuse by developing policies and make them available to school districts.
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Those model policies and procedures that OPI was “encouraged to develop” focused on awareness, prevention, response and reporting of child sexual abuse.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ed Greef, R-Florence, said initially the bill included $1.5 million in funding. In that fiscal note, which Greef said OPI assisted in developing, the expected expense was focused on creating curriculum that could be used by school districts.
“That was the heart and intent of the bill," Greef said.
He said the fiscal note was removed from the legislation after it became apparent the bill would not pass if it required funding under the fiscal constraints that the state was facing during the legislative session.
“We knew it would die in the appropriations committee,” he said. “It would just be a dead end. After consulting with other legislators, there was a consensus that it was important to get this started. Most definitely, when you look back at the fiscal note, curriculum and application in the classroom was there.”
During those discussions, Greef said OPI Superintendent Elsie Arntzen said there were already a lot of programs in place throughout the nation that school districts could use.
“They could get started down this path because there was already a lot of data out there for them to tap into,” Greef said. “Right now, I’m sensing that the school districts haven’t heard much at all about this. I’m going to start communicating with OPI and try to get a dialogue going about that.”
For OPI to create the curriculum, Klapmeier said it would have needed the funding to hire a specialist that the agency currently doesn’t have on board.
“We don’t want there to be a misconception that curriculum is coming or that it is supposed to be coming,” he said.
“It’s not that we are trying to disregard the intentions of the law,” Klapmeier said. “It was a noble law that was passed and that Rep. Greef was taking up.”
OPI’s health and safety division is looking at other states for potential guidance, but at this point, Klapmeier said it’s not clear whether the resources already in place in other states would be a fit for Montana.