Advocates and abuse survivors on Thursday described a frustrating lack of action on bills they say would make schools safer for students.
Massachusetts Citizens for Children executive director Jetta Bernier said her group and other supporters have been pushing for stronger requirement in schools since 2015.
"It's just unconscionable that we are still here, and I'm having to think about public hearings in another few months where we're gonna be asking these survivors to come and share their stories one more time, one more time," Bernier said during a virtual advocacy event. "I'm almost embarrassed to ask them."
Bills highlighted at the event include measures that would require schools to adopt abuse-prevention policies and to screen prospective employees for past allegations or investigations of child abuse and sexual misconduct.
Deerfield Rep. Natalie Blais, a sponsor of the employee-screening bill, said it would help schools "protect students from the really devastating consequences of child sexual abuse and its impact on our families and our communities."
"This legislation really seeks to prevent abusers from being passed from school to school, in an effort to ensure that schools are a safe and supportive environment for all of our children," she said.
Other bills promoted at Thursday's event would prevent teachers and other authority figures like coaches from using age of consent as a defense in cases in teenage sex abuse cases. In Massachusetts, the age of consent for sexual activity is 16.
Sen. Joan Lovely said the bills close a loophole in consent laws by establishing that people younger than 19 — or 22 for special education students — cannot legally consent to sexual relations with adults in a position of authority over them.
"Due to the grooming process, the victim may believe at the time that the sexual relationship is consensual and that the abuser loves them and they often will not recognize the grooming [and] abuse until they are an adult in their 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond," said Lovely, a Salem Democrat.
Lovely is the Senate sponsor of the legislation discussed Thursday and of other bills that aim to prevent child sexual abuse and support its survivors.
She told event participants that she was 6 years old when she was sexually abused by an uncle who was living with her family, and said she hears regularly from her constituents and other Massachusetts residents seeking help after a child is abused or assaulted.
"We will continue to push these bills," Lovely said. "We have really refined them and they are really ready for floor action."
Jen Falcone, who recounted her story of abuse as a junior high student, said one challenge in preventing child sexual abuse is "making this issue talkable." Many people, she said, are scared or uncomfortable discussing it.
"So many survivors are out there," she said. "So what we've got is, our overall society, we almost have a trauma response to the topic, I believe. So there's kind of this collective trauma around the issue, so when you try to talk to people about the issue, you can see some people shut down right in front of you."