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Students Renew Push For Child Abuse Curriculum In Kentucky Public Schools

Fons Cervera

Boyle County student Brooklyn Rockhold and her mother and brother endured abuse from her biological father for years. This week, she testified in front of Kentucky legislators, urging them to pass legislation to require child abuse education in schools so that children like her will be able to identify when they are being abused and report it.

“As I’ve gotten older and become more aware of what child abuse is, I’ve realized that things he did to my brother and I were abusive,” Rockhold testified. “If the schools had this legislation back then, I would not have grown up thinking this thing was normal.”

Rockhold and several of her classmates and a teacher urged the Kentucky General Assembly’s Interim Joint Education committee to support a new version of the 2019 Senate Bill 68, which was unsuccessful last legislative session. The bill would require public schools to “provide developmentally appropriate instruction on child abuse and child sexual abuse to students of all grades.”

Kentucky has the highest rate of child abuse of any state, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. About 22 in every 1,000 Kentucky children suffer abuse or neglect, more than twice the national average rate.

Boyle County student Addisyn Woodard repeated that statistic to lawmakers, adding that she was one of those sexually abused children. Boyle County teacher Amanda Underwood told legislators she had taught one of those children, without knowing it.

“170 days she came to my classroom, and 170 days I sent her home,” Underwood said. “Four years later the abuse finally came to light when her sister decided to report it. I didn’t save her from her abuser. I had more than 170 chances to see the abuse, and I failed her.”

Two female lawmakers on the committee, Rep. Melinda Gibbons Prunty (R-Belton) and Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (R-Lexington) spoke up to say that they had been sexually abused as children, and urged their fellow legislators to support a bill to raise awareness in schools.

“Why have we waited so long?” Forgy Kerr asked her colleagues. “Why have we waited so long?”

Kerr said she was abused on multiple occasions as a child, and has introduced similar legislation twice in the past without success. She noted that was in previous years, under different party leadership.

“I went before my leadership in closed meeting and explained what I wanted to do, and basically they said ‘gross.'”

Every legislator who commented during the committee Wednesday expressed support for a proposal to reintroduce legislation similar to Senate Bill 68. The committee’s co-chair Sen. Max Wise (R-Campbellsville) thanked the student speakers, calling their presentation “the most powerful testimony” the education committee had ever received.

“Kentucky is number one in the [country] for child abuse cases. If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got,” Boyle County teacher Amanda Underwood concluded.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.
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