SALT LAKE CITY — "He worked among you."
That was the message from Kristin Parry to lawmakers as she told the story of how her then-husband, Stephen J. Coleman, a budget analyst in the governor's office, was arrested on Capitol Hill three years ago and charged with sexually abusing the couple's two daughters.
The abuse had gone on for years, Parry said Thursday, but it wasn't until her daughters attended a sexual abuse awareness and prevention program at school that they broke their silence.
"My girls finally learned that what their father was doing to them was wrong and illegal and that they should tell someone they trusted," she said.
Parry's remarks came during a hearing of the Senate Education Committee in which she spoke in favor of HB286, a bill that would make the kind of information her daughters received commonplace in Utah's public schools, as well as provide training for educators to act as first responders.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, was unanimously approved by the committee and will now go before the full Senate. It passed the House in a 73-0 vote last week.
Romero said she understands the topic of sexual abuse can make some people uncomfortable. But she said the problem is more pervasive than the public realizes, and children need to be empowered to stop abusive behavior.
"Comfort comes second," Romero said. "It is the safety of our children that must come first."
Ciera Pekarcik, the reigning Miss Utah, also spoke in favor of the bill. As a 6-year-old student, she said, she was abused on school grounds, but her attempts to alert school personnel were ignored.
"I was ashamed and embarrassed," Pekarcik said, "and I didn’t want to let my parents down. So I remained silent, and the abuse continued for six months. I do not blame the school. I understand now there was a problem with education on the subject."
Pekarcik said the abuse she suffered led to her experiencing anxiety and suicidal thoughts as a 7-year-old child. She now advocates for child abuse prevention and said she believes programs like the one in Romero's bill are critical to teaching children to take action.
"I just needed somebody to tell me how to say, 'Stop,'" Pekarcik said. "This bill is not about sex. This bill is about safety."
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said she supports the bill but urged lawmakers to include an amendment that would require parental permission before a child participates.
"Good parents should not lose their right to know ahead of time that this is going to be taught," Ruzicka said.
Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, said the rights of parents are already preserved in the bill, which includes provisions that they be given advanced notice of the abuse prevention program and be allowed to participate with their children if they choose.
The bill also allows students to opt out of the program but does not require parents to opt in.
Many of the speakers who testified in favor of the bill cautioned lawmakers against requiring parents to opt in to the program out of concern that it could lead to the children who need the information most failing to receive it.
Parry said Coleman's manipulation was very strong, and it was only when her children were learning among their peers that they realized his behavior was abnormal.
"(He) would have convinced me not to have them attend," she said.
Coleman was ordered in July 2011 to serve two concurrent 15-years-to-life prison sentences.
Committee members ultimately voted Thursday to approve the existing language of the bill without further amendments.