Following the arrest last week of two brothers for second-degree sexual assault at a Sept. 8 teenage drinking party, Homer confronted the larger issue of underage and adult binge drinking and sexual violence in meetings of parents, teenage children and health professionals.
"Today we're focused on a horrible incident," said Ginny Espenshade, director of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Court, Homer, at a parents meeting last Thursday at the Mariner Theatre. "We're starting to heal. I hope we can pivot and look down the road ... This is an opportunity, as sad as it is, to focus our attention."
Traumatic as the Sept. 8 incident is, sexual assault by and to teenagers isn't isolated, including the rape of boys.
"One thing confusing in all of this is that we're hearing mixed messages. Bullying is a problem; bullying isn't a problem. Sexual assault of youth does exist; sexual assault of youth doesn't exist," Jessica Lawmaster, executive director of South Peninsula Haven House, said at a meeting Monday night. "I'm here to tell you that those things do exist in our community."
Lawmaster turned to national statistics to prove her point:
"The really disturbing thing about the statistics is that research shows that 10 percent or less of victims report being assaulted," said Lawmaster. "The numbers (one in four and one in six) sound high, but when you think that 10 percent are reporting, it's really alarming."
Other statistics Lawmaster shared:
Since the Sept. 8 incident made statewide news, some already planned meetings and others held to address the issue have been held to look at what these statistics mean locally and what can be done to increase the margin of safety.
Homer High School meeting
Parents, students and concerned citizens overflowed into the aisles at a meeting billed as a parents meeting last Thursday night at the Mariner Theatre.
The Homer High School Swing Choir set the tone with an a cappella rendition of Ben King's "Stand by Me," but the tune might as well have been Bob Marley's and Peter Tosh's "Get Up Stand Up." Coordinated by Homer High School Principal Dr. Allan Gee, several times during the night groups were asked to stand up to be acknowledged, like Homer Police, Alaska State Troopers and members of social service agencies; Homer High students; volunteers; and the high school staff and teachers.
Gee and Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superindent Dr. Steve Atwater explained the district's limited response to off-campus activities and why troopers handled the case. Sgt. Jeremy Stone, the new head of the Anchor Point Trooper Post, talked about why until charges were filed troopers had to be quiet about the investigation — and still couldn't say much.
"I know it's frustrating to the public that we can't share a whole lot of information at this time," Stone said. "We're gathering information in this case."
Stone also said he would bring the hammer down on any adult furnishing alcohol to teens, including parents who say they want to provide a safe place for them to drink. He said that for a town to make changes as a community, it has to change its perceptions.
Stone quoted the bumper sticker that reads, "Homer, Alaska: a quaint little drinking town with a fishing problem."
"That's the kind of message that gets out there as well — the community is bragging about having a drinking problem," Stone said. "That's not a mentality we want to pass on to our community."
Several speakers, including Lawmaster, spoke about programs helping and educating adolescents She and other Haven House advocates wore purple ribbons in recognition of domestic violence awareness month.
"Some of the recent incidents, and some what's going to be discussed tonight, can get really emotional," Lawmaster said. "If anyone here would like some support and some information, please feel free to snag us."
Lawmaster also made a plea for compassion for the 17-year-old victim. Some people want to talk about the details.
"We've been encouraging people not to do that," she said. "Every victim of assault has a story. That's how we can honor victims, letting them hold the story."
The heart of the meeting came when parents and community members stood up to speak in a public comment period.
"Some of us may never heal from these events. Some of us may heal at our own speed," said Julie Davis. She quoted Martin Luther King: "'Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.' We can focus on the light. We can focus on prevention."
Elise Boyer, whose family returned to Homer after her husband Jay retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, appealed to youth to stand up for their friends — something hard to do when the aggressor is bigger.
"If your friend is in a way he can't protect himself, get him out of there," she said. "If something is going to go south, get out before it does. Look out for your buddies."
Scott Cardoza, a youth pastor, appealed for parents to support their kids. Volunteer at dances, he said.
"My son is not going to dirty-dance in front of me ... These kids, I'd say they don't know how to dance," he said. "We need to be vigilant. I want to be the number one support system of my family. We can team up."
Lisa Bowman, a freshman, said the town can solve the problem together.
"We can work through this as a family," she said. "Thank you for showing up tonight. It means a lot to everyone."
"It makes my heart sing," Donna Beran, a Haven House advocate, said of hearing students and parents speak. "This is a community problem. ... We have a lot of resources in this community to do things better."
By coincidence, MAPP, Mobilizing Action through Planning and Partnership, had scheduled a community meeting Friday at Kachemak Bay Campus to review its activities. A community health assessment that started several years ago, MAPP has been bringing together groups and individuals working in all aspects of community health. Friday's meeting included presentations by representatives for Nature Rocks--Kids in Nature, Cook Inletkeeper, Healthy Lifestyles and a big program, the Homer Prevention Project, or HPP.
HPP identified the issues of sexual assault and domestic violence as being of importance. One way to address those issues is to look at the substance abuse angle, particularly underage and adult binge drinking. HPP recently did a needs assessment survey that interviewed adults and teens and found teenagers reporting about 25 percent had consumed five or more drinks in a row in the past 30 days and 10 percent of adults saying they had five or more drinks in a row.
The prevention project looked at how adult alcohol abuse can cause adverse childhood experiences. Such experiences can lead to underage drinking, which causes adult alcohol abuse, and so on, perpetuating a cycle.
"If it's damaged as a sapling, it's not going to be a healthy tree," is how Ginny Espenshade, one of the Homer Prevention Project committee members, explained adverse childhood experiences.
"We've got a river. We're trying to get them out of the river, and upstream they're jumping into the river," she explained the cycle.
When the Sept. 8 incident started being talked about, Espenshade said her group started getting phone calls asking what they were doing ... It would honor those people hurt by events (to answer) what are we doing about sustainable change?"
Referring to a chart, Espenshade pointed to four columns showing how HPP would work toward change and address the issues of underage and adult binge drinking. Three of the columns are filled in and identify the issue of alcohol abuse and the cycle it creates; variables affecting the issue, such as community norms and perception of risk; and contributing factors, such as community tolerance of underage and adult binge drinking. The solution part of the chart, strategies, is the next step to be done this fall.
'Voices Over Violence: a dialogue for youth on creating a safer tomorrow'
Monday was the first of several meetings South Peninsula Haven House is offering local youth and adults to address violence and safety.
"There was really too much to fit into one night, so we'll make this the first meeting or event of a number of meetings or events," said Lawmaster.
A follow-up meeting is planned for Wednesday at Kachemak Bay Campus, Kenai Peninsula College-University of Alaska Anchorage, beginning at 5:45 p.m. Adults will discuss actions and change adults want to see for youth; youth will discuss bystander intervention, as well as changes they want to see and how adults can provide support.
Discussion among the 50 adults and youth attending Monday's meeting focused on "some of the bigger issues" and began with a definition of sexual assault. According to the Federal Office of Violence Against Women, "Sexual assault is any type of sexual conduct or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities (such) as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling and attempted rape." Summarized on one of several posters displayed at the meeting, sexual assault "is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient."
That led to a discussion and activities about the issue of consent: what it is, what it isn't, why it might be confusing. While consent — giving permission to another person to do something — sounds uncomplicated, as illustrated with the help of Rachel Romberg, victims services program manager for Haven House, and the role-playing of high school students from Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic's "Promoting Health Among Teens" program. A timeline detailing a hypothetical high school student's evening with alcohol-consuming companions, a dance and a party provided opportunities to identify when and why consent played a part.
The timeline also led to discussion about what makes the issue of consent difficult. Among the factors listed were social status, age differences, awkwardness, peer pressure, dependence, alcohol consumption, and the pressure of partners or wannabe partners.
How to intervene going from "standing by" to "standing up" also was addressed. The first step was recognizing when a problem was occurring, followed by a decision to assume responsibility. Research indicates the deciding to come to someone's aid is diffused (hard to understand) in incidents involving more than one bystander, but the PHAT students drew from the University of Vermont's "Bystander Intervention Playbook" to show examples of successful interventions. One example the students role-played was creatively diverting the attention of two individuals involved in a conflict by "accidentally" spilling a beverage on one of the individuals and then whisking her away with offers to help find dry clothing.
A short video addressed bullying, opening with the statistic that in 2012 "13 million will be teased, taunted and assaulted, making bullying the most common form of violence American youth experience." At the end of the video, Lawmaster offered another statistic: 57 percent of the time, if someone speaks up, it ends within 10 seconds.
"The ones who feel safe, it's your job in particular to look out for those who don't feel safe," said Romberg. "I invite all of you to take that challenge and stand up together to see what we can do to make Homer High School even better for every student, and Homer Middle School and Homer Flex, all the way down to West Homer and Paul Banks. It starts young and is more than just about good kids or bad kids. It's about a culture we're all contributing to."
The preceding report first appeared in the Homer News and is republished here with permission.