I-Team Investigates: Could this new law help prevent child sex abuse?

Erin's Law & the Springboro 88 | I-Team Investigation

As a former Springboro physical education faces criminal sexual contact charges, News Center 7’s I-Team is looking at a law dozens of states have to see if it could help prevent similar allegations in Ohio.

Warren County prosecutors said former Clearcreek Elementary physical education teacher John Austin Hopkins had physical interactions with 88 female students.

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Some of their parents said their daughters had no clue former Hopkins was sexually abusing them like prosecutors have now alleged.

The woman behind a national law mandating sex abuse prevention education in dozens of other state’s schools said that’s why Erin’s Law must be on the books here in Ohio.

But the I-Team’s Molly Koweek discovered legal and political obstacles stand in the way.

“It has completely rocked our family,” said a mother who said her daughter is one of the 88 girls impacted by the case.

Prosecutors said the former gym teacher inappropriately touched female students at school.

Surveillance video in the gym showed gut-wrenching images to the girl’s parents.

“He had called her over, up to his side, and while she’s there he starts rubbing her butt and thigh, just over and over, up and down, while he nuzzles her head in his shoulder,” said the girl’s father.

Extended Interview: Family of Springboro student speak out on Hopkins case

Despite that, she wasn’t one of the 28 connected to 36 indictments against Hopkins.

Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell said the grand jury found 36 indictments of touching that rose to a criminal level.

Those indictments involved 28 first-grade girls.

During a June 20 hearing, Hopkins’ attorney David Chicarelli said his client “totally denied” prosecutors’ charges.

According to prosecutors, illegal sexual contact, as defined under Ohio law,  “purposes of sexually arousing or gratifying either person.”

“All 88 girls are victims in the sense of what he’s done,” said the dad. “It’s not just hugs...If you look at at what happened to our daughter, she’s not one of the 28, but clearly to us, by watching the video, it’s not right. There’s clearly something wrong.”

He said he doesn’t think his daughter had any idea she was being abused.

Erin Merryn can relate.

She said she was around the same age as the girls in the Hopkins case when her sexual abuse started.

“I was confused,” she said. “I kept it a secret.”

Now Merryn is on a mission to make sure all public schools in the U.S. implement what she called a prevention-oriented child sexual abuse program.

The program would teach things like the difference of safe and unsafe touch and safe and unsafe secrets, while empowering kids.

That type of education is not mandatory for students in Ohio public schools. Instead, it’s up to the local school district.

Springboro Schools declined to do an on-camera interview with News Center 7, but released a statement, saying in part that “in the past. Clearcreek Elementary, which serves students preschool through first grade, has not implemented child sexual abuse education for students.

“Given the age of the students, preschool through first grade, the district’s belief, in conjunction with Springboro Schools’ mental health services department, is that this type of education is typically suited to being at home.”

Merryn disagrees and said that if the prosecutions’ allegations are true, Erin’s Law could have made a difference in the Hopkins case, where the alleged victims are 6 and 7 years old.

“Had Erin’s Law existed when these kids are being taught this in elementary school, I guarantee you, you would not be seeing the number of children that have been abused,” Merryn said.

“If she was just more educated, I think that she would have come to us and said something,” said the girl’s mom.

Thirty-six states have passed Erin’s Law, but Ohio is not one of them.

“It has died in committee every year,” said Merryn.

Despite a social media campaign last year, she has not been able to figure out why Senate Education Chair Andrew Brenner did not allow for a vote.

“Sadly, once again, for the fifth year it died in Ohio,” Merryn said.

The I-Team reached out to Sen. Brenner who said that while he likely would’ve supported Erin’s Law, he did not have the votes to pass it out of his committee because a majority of lawmakers felt it took away control from local districts.

But our I-Team investigation found that even if Erin’s Law does pass in Ohio, it would change state police

Right now — the Department of Education’s spokesperson told the I-Team — state law currently mandates that local districts get to decide what health education is taught.

Within that, the state only requires districts to teach “personal safety” and “assault prevention” related topics.

Without a key phrase, the current law has a loophole, Merryn said.

“You need to get in the word sexual abuse prevention,” she said.

Local experts said that specific type of education is key for children.

“It’s starts giving them permission and that empowerment to know that is something doesn’t feel right in their body and they’re not comfortable with somebody that they can tell somebody,” said Amy Fornshell, manager of the Warren County Child Advocacy Center.

She said this “absolutely” be a top priority for lawmakers.

“I think the sooner we can provide this information to kids and their families and prevent it, the better we’ll be as a state,” Amy Fornshell said.

But Merryn said Ohio is nowhere close to moving forward with legislation.

“Ohio’s one of the few states, there’s three, that does not have a legislator sponsoring this bill,” she said.

For the parents of one of Hopkins’ alleged victims, they want to ask state lawmakers what’s taking so long.

“I think it has to be required,” said the mother. “And then maybe one of the girls would have said something.”

Sen. Brenner also said that lawmakers were concerned about where funding would come from for Erin’s Law education.

Merryn said that there is federal funding available since 2015. All local districts would have to do is ask the feds for the money.

Sen. Brenner said he did not know about the funds.