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Organizations gather to fight assault epidemic

Organizers picked the perfect time to take action.April is National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month

Staff Note: Participants report the Thursday morning meeting went well. The groups first step moving forward will be to join the regional “Start By Believing” campaign. Find out more about the campaign here.

By Meg Dickens
Staff Writer

At this point, most people know about the COVID-19 pandemic. What people may not know about is a far more prevalent epidemic in Johnson County: sexual assault. It is a topic rarely broached or acknowledged. Now several groups are taking steps to help educate the public and support victims. The first step starts with a grant under Dr. Judy McCook from ETSU.

ETSU received a grant with a focus on Johnson and Hancock Counties. In Johnson County, members of the Health Department, Frontier Health, ETSU, and Women of Mountain City are gathering Thursday to launch plans for a SART (Sexual Assault Response Team) and figure out what can be done to help. Both McCook and new Women of MC employee Christina Perkins have experience creating and managing these types of teams.

ETSU’s Research and Development team surveyed locals. Out of 200 participants, more than 70 percent report being sexually assaulted, and officials report being “shocked at the large number of people being abused.” The Women of MC conducted an additional survey and received reports of approximately 75 percent of survey takers being sexual assault victims. Even more disturbing, many of these victims report not experiencing an isolated incident of rape; abuse often started when they were children.

“We’re creating a team to support victims, create safe places, and educate,” Women of MC Director Olivia Stelter emphasized. “We need to start teaching kids what sexual assault is before they might deal with it. This must be a partnership with law enforcement, schools, and legal entities.”

While many of these victims confide in people close to them about their assault, official reports are far rarer. In a small town, people tend to talk. Stelter, who facilitates conversation on the topic through Women of MC, reports that many victims are afraid to share their stories because word may get out and the person receiving the report could know the abuser.

“This is the first time in my entire life that I’ve felt like people are actually listening and believe,” Stelter told The Tomahawk after recounting her own experience. “If we don’t do this, victims will never be believed and nothing will change.”

The Thursday meeting is for participants only but new groups are welcome to join. Any advocates or agencies (including churches) interested can email [email protected] for more information. Keep an eye out for any new information.