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Task force sparks conversation about sexual violence

Around 30 community members gathered Wednesday night to share their experiences, discuss concerns and brainstorm ideas of how to raise awareness about sexual violence in Ashland.

The event at the Ashland Public Library was organized by a newly formed task force, Keep Ashland Women Safe (KAWS). The organizer, Alaya Ketani, said she worked in collaboration with several field-related nonprofits and the Ashland Police Department to advocate for, educate and empower those who experience sexual violence.

The task force — still in its infancy stage — met with support at its first event, as community members applauded its effort to spark a new conversation about consent, sexual assault and supporting programs for victims and survivors.

“This is both a women’s and a men’s issue, but we need to start somewhere,” Ketani said. “I realized that I approached this very innocently, but I still believe that anything is possible and we can do something about this.”

The Wednesday night event, after presentations from community partners, quickly turned into a platform where community members discussed their own experiences of being assaulted and how to create a consent culture and encourage reporting.

A community member in the audience raised the question, “Why don’t people report?” after Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said only roughly 10 to 20 percent of all sexual assaults are reported in Oregon.

Seventeen cases of sexual assault were reported to Ashland police in 2017. That means roughly 85 to 175 cases actually happened, O’Meara said.

“I don’t want to offend anyone,” the community member said of her question. “I just want to know.”

O’Meara said self-blame and fear of retaliation play a big role in a survivor’s choice to not report.

“How do you do it when it’s your brother, your father or your uncle?” he said. “How do you do it when your mom doesn’t believe you? There’s a lot of obstacles in reporting.”

Susan Moen, director of Jackson County Sexual Assault Response Team, said sometimes it’s due to victim-blaming. She also added that the healing process for each survivor is different, and sometimes reporting to law enforcement is not within that process.

“Victim blaming is real. We don’t have models where people would thank them for reporting,” Moen said, referring to cases such as Bill Cosby’s.

As for the justice system, a sexual assault case could “take years,” and for some survivors, “they don’t want to be constantly reminded of it,” Moen said.

Kim Caplan of Community Works added that many survivors “recognize the low number of attackers actually being convicted.”

“So they don’t believe anything is going to be done,” Caplan said. “The process could also bring up trauma, and it’s exhausting to survivors.”

Advocates also repeatedly highlighted a reporting program that was initiated in Ashland called You Have Options — a program that empowers survivors by allowing them to report at their own pace.

Services and 24-hour hotline from Jackson County SART and Community Works are also presented at the meeting. Organizer Aaron Ortega also offered an “empowerment class” that would be inclusive of all genders to teach each individual about self-awareness and self-empowerment.

A member of the audience suggested forming neighborhood and bar watches, as O’Meara reiterated the importance of the motto, “See something, say something.”

Community members at the event agreed that Ashland “is ready to have a conversation,” as several volunteered to continue working and collaborating to create a vision going forward.

“If all we hope for is to keep women safe, that’s not enough,” a male audience said. “That’s just putting out fire, and not preventing fire.”

C.J. Thomas, organizer of a program called Community Consent Circle, said the idea of consent and consent culture needs to be normalized in Ashland — an idea that has been accepted on campuses across the nation but has yet to integrate to the municipal level.

“We need a process of reprogramming,” Thomas said. “We need to understand that when we say, ‘No,’ that needs to be honored.”

—Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or tnguyen@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.

Image via Ashland Police DepartmentA task force inspired by an incident that happened at The Loft, a restaurant on the Ashland Plaza, in December 2017, led to a meeting Wednesday. According to news reports and the restaurant owner’s Facebook post, an assailant groped a female employee, then punched another employee before escaping the scene. This image of the alleged perpatrator is taken from a security video at the restaurant.