SEQUIM — From high-schoolers to grandparents, community members of all walks of life gathered at the Sequim High School Auditorium last month to discuss sexual assault, abuse and misconduct issues among young people.
The Keep Our Kids Safe forum Feb. 22 was facilitated by a group called The Beginning that aims to bring awareness and start a community conversation about sexual assault and abuse to, and among, adolescents.
Co-founders of The Beginning Shenna Younger and Bertha Cooper, along with their steering group, asked community leaders to form a panel to discuss these issues with the Sequim community.
“It really put a fire in me to break this silence,” Younger said. “I also have a desire to make sure the little girl I once was is proud of the woman I am today, and part of that is being able to speak about this and break the silence on what’s happening in our community.”
Panelists included Clallam County Commissioner Mark Ozias, Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols, Healthy Families of Clallam County Executive Director Becca Korby, Sequim Police Department Sgt. Darrell Nelson and Detective Devin McBride, as well as Younger.
Ozias said that from a county perspective, the issue of sexual misconduct is correlated with many of the negative health behaviors students expressed in the 2017 County Healthy Assessment.
“The 2017 County Health Assessment paints a landscape for our county’s youth,” Ozias said. “Related to all of those statistics is the topic we’re here to talk about this evening, sexual misconduct.”
Ozias also said after sitting down with a mixed group of high school students recently, they voiced they would like more training and education to be offered at Sequim High School, and particularly in middle school, to discuss the topic of consent.
“We should look to these very same kids for the answers, and they all pointed in the same direction for solutions,” he said.
“They told me what they want and what they need to help with this problem, sexual misconduct, is training … done in a serious and consistent matter on the subject of consent.”
Nichols detailed data during his presentation that showed in Clallam County from 2015-16 there was a significant increase in the number of sexual assaults occurring in the juvenile community. That has continued into 2018, he said.
“This paints a troubling picture of what’s happening with respect to the youth in our communities, a person under the age of 18 who is sexually offending against their peers,” Nichols said.
“The concern to me is that Clallam County is experiencing two to three times the percent of sex offenses as compared to our comparative counties, so that speaks to a problem within our community.”
“What’s clear, however, is there is a dire need to start discussing this as a community, including with our youth.”
Younger, a mother of two daughters and survivor of childhood sexual abuse, stressed the importance of the role parents play in educating their children about sexual assault and misconduct.
“Tell your kids it’s never OK for someone to assault you,” she said. “Start that conversation.”
Korby encouraged audience members to start the dialogue and to take the shame away from discussing the issue.
“This is a collective responsibility,” she said. “Each and every one of us owes these youngsters, we are obligated, we are bound, it’s in our charter.”
“Start talking, take the shadows away,” Korby said. “I call you all to be noisy.”
Nelson agreed with Younger that parents have a responsibility to their children.
“Parents you are the first line of defense with your kids,” Nelson said, “because we need you to be there on every level.”
McBride also shed some light on what it would be like if a victim were to come to the police department and report a crime.
“It’s not the typical, cold dark room with a small chairs and table … because we have specific rooms dedicated to victims,” he said. “These are comfortable rooms and these are safe spaces to make the victims feel comforted and safe.”
Most interviews last around an hour, Nelson said, are recorded, and he will ask victims to go over exactly what happened when the crime occurred.
Nelson said while the process of reporting is one thing, restoring a victim’s voice is just as important.
“Another piece is you have in this county, a group of people that are operating at every level, to ensure trust, transparency and the restoration of a victim’s voice,” he said.
After the panelists concluded their presentations, the floor was opened to audience members to ask questions, voice concerns and/or share suggestions.
Many suggested implementing education in schools to discuss the issue of sexual assault, abuse and misconduct, as well as the issue of consent.
Nichols said consent cards were made as a resource for discussing consent, power, and frequently asked questions about consent that he would like to have distributed to local school districts for students to refer to.
“It asks the questions probably a lot of kids and adults would have [about consent] for that matter,” he said.
Sequim School Board members Brandino Gibson and Jim Stoffer attended the forum.
“We also do recognize as school board directors that we do take a piece of this as well,” Gibson said. “We are here tonight because we feel this is a very important topic, and we wanted to hear what they public has to say.”
Both Younger and Cooper said they were happy with the turnout of the forum and believed they achieved their goals for the forum.
“Our objectives were to increase awareness, to start the conversation and to give people some comfort,” Cooper said.
“Our final objective we had was that people assume some responsibility themselves.”
Younger said the group would like to conduct forums in Port Angeles, Forks and Port Townsend. It also may hold another forum in the spring in Sequim.
For more information, contact [email protected] or Younger at 360-461-4288.
Erin Hawkins is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach her at [email protected].