A Rapist At Large

EmptyParkBenchWhile much of the rest of the country is experiencing frigid temperatures and snow storms, Ashland, Oregon has been balmy this past week: windy but mild, highs in the low 50s. My mother, who was visiting from Amherst, Massachusetts, was amazed every time she walked outside.

“Oh this weather!” she’s been saying with a happy sigh. “You have no idea how lucky you are.”

We are lucky to live in such a nice place. While it isn’t perfect, Ashland has the best of so many things: A nine-month-long theater festival, lots of outdoor recreation including a ski mountain, a small university, locally-owned businesses and boutique shopping, some of the best coffee shops in the world, and an excellent food co-op.

But, it seems, we also have a rapist on the loose.

Since early December there have been three sexual assaults in Ashland that may be related. The most disturbing is also the most recent. A woman was raped in broad daylight close to one of our city’s busiest intersections.

I’m always worried about keeping my children safe. There is not usually much crime in Ashland. This is the kind of place where people often don’t lock their doors, where women can safely walk home at 2:00 in the morning, and where newspaper headlines are more often about local politics than local crime. So I’m not sure how to react to this news without feeling inordinately fearful and irrationally worried.

I grew up outside of Boston. When I was in high school, I was walking two miles home from work one summer day, carrying my shoes in one hand so I could step in rain puddles. A man walking towards me bent down. I remember noticing that he wasn’t tying his shoes and then chastising myself for wondering what he was doing.

“It’s a free country,” I thought to myself. “He can do what he wants.”

When I came closer, he stood up and grabbed my breasts.

It was broad daylight on a busy street. I started screaming. I was so furious I didn’t think to be scared. The pervert hurried away and I had so much adrenaline coursing through my body that I almost ran after him. “YOU DISGUSTING CREEP,” I screamed. “YOU DISGUSTING CREEP!”

Though at least half a dozen cars drove by, not a single driver stopped.

I wish I could say that was the only time a stranger approached me and did something inappropriate during my childhood but it wasn’t.

Afterwards, I was terrified for a long time. I kept re-living the attack in my head. I was working at a book warehouse and when I was in the stacks shelving books I would get frightened, turning around sharply, sure that the man who had grabbed me was standing right there.

I’m so lucky that nothing worse happened to me that day. I ran home and collapsed into sobs. Though at first I was resistant because I felt humiliated and embarrassed, my father persuaded me to let him call the police. When two detectives traipsed into our house in heavy boots, they told us there had been several other sexual assaults that summer.

Ever since, I’ve been much more street smart. I’m always aware of who is around me, whether I’m walking alone or with friends, in daylight or at night. I pay attention to my intuition now and if something seems out of the ordinary or someone makes me nervous, I usually react right away. Once, when I lived in an apartment complex in Atlanta, I went to get the mail from the collective mailboxes and something–I can’t tell you what because I don’t know–spooked me. I ducked into the nearest lighted building, took the stairs two at a time, and knocked on the door on the top floor. A couple let me in and I used their phone to call James, who was my boyfriend at the time. It was just a few feet and I couldn’t explain why I was scared but I did not want to walk back to my apartment alone. That night robbers broke into the ground floor apartment in the adjacent building and stole everything of value.

We practice street smarts at our house, role-playing situations where a stranger tells one of the kids he has candy for them or where he yells at them to get into his car. I teach them it’s okay to scream, “NO! GET AWAY FROM ME!” at the top of their lungs. I tell them that if an adult they do not know asks them for help, that adult is a bad person who probably wants to hurt them and they should get away as quickly as they can. I tell them not to run away from danger but to run towards safety. I do our safety scenarios with lots of exaggeration and silliness (and only when James isn’t around because he gets so worried and freaked out that his upset becomes counterproductive). The kids think the role-playing is so much fun that they sometimes even ask to practice.

We also have a family password. The kids know not to go with an adult they know for a last-minute change of plans unless that adult gives them the password. If the adult doesn’t know the password, the kids know to insist on calling me or James to make sure it’s okay.

SOU public safety issued a list of recommendations. Here they are:

1. Walk with a companion.

2. Walk in well lit areas. Do not walk in dark alleys or unfamiliar areas. If you must do so, carry a flashlight.

3. Carry a shrill whistle to sound an alert.

4. Have a cell phone available.

5. Be aware of your surroundings. Do not walk with your head down or while wearing headphones.

6. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return.

7. If you are threatened, dial 911 immediately.

How do you keep your children safe and teach them to be aware and careful without scaring them? How do you protect them without taking away their independence? At what age should a child carry a cell phone? Is it ever safe to let a child walk alone? Please share your thoughts and stories in the comment section below.

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on Tuesday, January 12th, 2010 at 6:23 am and is filed under safety.
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