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Turning the Tide on Sexual Assault at the City Club

On Friday, October 31st, we went to the City Club for a program titled "Turning the Tide on Sexual Assault" which was a panel discussion moderated by Ms. Rachel Dissell of The Plain Dealer featuring Ms. Katie Hanna, Executive Director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence; Ohio State Rep. Nickie Antonio from District 13; Chief Andre Gonzalez from the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority, and Ms. Sondra Miller, President and CEO of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. The discussion was introduced by Ms. Joanna Connors of The Plain Dealer who noted that there were 100 women in the audience and at least 15 of them will experience sexual violence. In only 27% of the cases is the assailant a stranger. The trauma never leaves a rape victim and they often have problems with depression, drugs and alcohol. Ms. Connors noted that a sign of hope is the public interest in testing the rape kits and the prosecutions that have resulted from this.

All of the participants had important things to say. Ohio State Rep. Antonio talked about the success of obtaining state funds for the rape crisis centers and the the future goals of a bill of rights for the survivors of sexual assault and the possibility of amending the statue of limitations in Ohio which now says that the prosecution of the offense of sexual battery must commence within twenty years to make it for life.

Ms. Hanna was in Steubenville along with Ms. Dissell and was impressed by the amount of student activism that she saw there and said that it was "really exciting to see youth involved". They are very aware of this issue and want to do something about it.

Chief Gonzalez was the first to admit that the police haven't always handled sexual assault cases properly. They used to doubt the victim's credibility when they were first called in after the assault. This is changing, though, and the police are now being trained to be more empathetic and understanding and not say to the victim that "I don't believe you" but instead just focus on the facts so a trained investigator can follow-up on it. What is also helpful is that law enforcement officials like Cuyahoga County Prosecutor McGinty and FBI Special Agent in Charge Steve Anthony are making it easier for different law enforcement agencies to interact with each other thus be more effective.

Ms. Miller said that the focus used to be on teaching women on ways to avoid sexual assault (for instance don't walk to your car alone at night) but now the emphasis is on teaching/coaching young men and boys to develop a healthy masculinity. Ms. Miller went on to talk about bystander training for boys/young men where they are taught the proper way to intervene if they see something that is not right.

Along these lines, during the Q and A a young man asked how the awareness of men could be changed and got a round of applause. Ms. Miller told him that "you have incredible influence as a man with peers at your table. When your friends are talking about violence against women, this is no joke-it is not really okay." Chief Gonzalez told him to employ "reverse peer pressure" and emphasize "no means no" and thus "eventually the message will take root."

On the subject of the media's coverage of sexual assault matters, the panel was glad that sexual assault is finally getting the media attention that it didn't have for so long but Ohio State Rep. Antonio urged everyone to be "responsible as consumers" and let the media know that sensationalizing the details of the assault, as it sometimes does, is unacceptable.

We shared a table with two officials from the CMHA police department who were Executive Officer George E. Coulter and Commander Tom Burdeshaw along and Mr. Craig Tame, the Law Enforcement Manager of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Cleveland. All thought highly of Chief Gonzalez and were glad to see this panel discussion take place.

After the discussion we talked for a couple of minutes with Ms. Miller, Ms. Hanna, and Chief Gonzalez. All agreed that it is often difficult for people who have recently immigrated to the United States to report a crime such as sexual assault because they worry about entanglements concerning their legal status. We gave all of them our contact information and told them to call us if a situation arises where Margaret W. Wong and Associates could be of service. All were grateful.

We mentioned in the first paragraph that this panel discussion took place on Halloween but it was no horror story although it dealt with a horrible crime; it was about the coming together of a community around a serious problem and the hope for what lies ahead.

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