Knowledge — not emotion — stops rape
on November 5, 2009
More than 40 community leaders and city residents filled a conference room at the RYSE Center, Richmond’s community center for youth, two days after a brutal rape at Richmond High School. Five men have been charged and another one arrested in the rape of a student last week. Details that onlookers videotaped the rape and cheered on the assault left meeting participants shaken.
“I come to this table mad as hell,” said the Reverend Andre Shumake, president of the Richmond Improvement Association. “After 10 years of seeing homicides in Richmond I thought I had seen it all.”
“I think I will become numb to the level of violence,” said Police Chief Chris Magnus. He recalled a case of an elderly Richmond resident beaten to death on the street as an example of the horrific crimes that regularly confront the Richmond police force. But, he said, “the scope of this is mind-boggling.”
Others expressed regret at their lack of surprise.
“I wish I were shocked but I am not,” said Nicole Valentino, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin’s representative. Valentino, who worked as a therapist in Richmond before joining the mayor’s staff, said she has previously treated women raped by more than one assailant.
Valentino echoed the sentiments of Rhonda James, the executive director of Community Violence Solutions, Contra Costa County’s 36-year-old rape crisis center. The Richmond high school rape, James said, was the second assault with multiple assailants the center has responded to in the past month.
The widespread media attention to the Richmond case has already encouraged more sexual assault survivors to come to the center seeking treatment, James said in an interview after the meeting. She said the center saw a similar increase in clients after a December 2008 hate crime in which several men raped a Richmond resident who’s a lesbian.
Advocates for rape victims say they find themselves frustrated after such high profile cases. Anger, fear and shock are normal reactions to rape, they say, but policy rooted in these feelings can have a disastrous effect.
They feel dismayed, for example, at prevention efforts aimed at women, like self-defense classes.
“What the heck are we talking to girls for?” asks James. “They are not assaulting.” The question, James said, should be “How do we help young men do the right thing?”
Prevention directed at men is the best way to end violence against women, said Robert Coombs, the director of public affairs at CALCASA, a coalition California of rape crisis centers. CALCASA directs a program called My Strength, which is also the training that Community Violence Prevention offers in high schools across Contra Costa and Marin counties. The program is funded in part by the federal Centers for Disease Control and administered in partnership with the California Department of Health.
My Strength seeks to prevent rape by training men to understand what constitutes a sexual assault and coaching them on safe ways to speak up. “When you don’t know who the bad guy is going to be, your best tool is to have a lot of good guys,” Coombs said.
This approach is called bystander training, and Coombs said it could have prevented the Richmond rape. “A case like this really highlights some missed opportunities,” Coombs said.
One source of James’s frustration following the Richmond High rape was the sporadic and unpredictable access to students at the high school for the past six years.
“I’m tired of keeping silent about it,” James said. At a safety meeting at the high school on Oct. 28, she stood up and demanded access to Richmond High. James said she was in the school by 9:30 the next morning by order of the school board supervisor.
Missed opportunities and misdirected efforts also mark state legislation aimed at protecting people from sexual assault, advocates say. Sexual assault laws fueled by intense public emotion, they say, often stand in stark contrast to the best practices that sexual violence prevention groups have advocated for years.
California’s Jessica’s Law, for example, was passed by voter initiative in 2006 after a fierce campaign by state legislators George and Sharon Runner, who co-sponsored the initiative. The law requires that people classified as sexually violent predators wear GPS monitors and it forbids them from living within 2,000 feet of schools, playgrounds and parks. Jessica’s Law first passed in Florida when a child, Jessica Lunsford, was raped and murdered by a convicted sex offender.
Megan’s Law, requiring sex offenders to list their addresses on a public registry, passed in 1996. All states have a version of Megan’s Law, named after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old who was raped and murdered in New Jersey in 1994 by a convicted sex offender who lived across the street from her.
As the first state to enact Megan’s Law, New Jersey has studied its effectiveness. A December 2008 report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice found that sex offender registration does not decrease sexual assaults.
Jessica’s Law, by contrast, has the paradoxical effect of making convicted offenders more likely to assault again, CALCASA’s Coombs said. The residency restrictions of Jessica’s Law increase the chance that offenders will become homeless, Coombs said, and instability is a key trigger for sex offenders.
Homelessness among sex offenders on parole increased by more than 800 percent since Jessica’s Law took effect in California in November 2006. According to a November 2008 report from California’s Sex Offender Management Board, in 2006, 88 sex offenders on parole were homeless. By June 2008, 1,056 sex offenders were homeless.
“The more you isolate those people and make them into outsiders the more dangerous they become,” said psychologist Jay Adams. “It makes them feel like they have nothing to lose,” added Adams, the public information officer for California Coalition on Sexual Offending and a former staff psychologist for the California Department of Corrections.
Advocates say another problem with the law is that it makes people feel safe because they think they know where sex offenders are in the community and can avoid the danger they pose by avoiding them. But most sex offenders prey on people they know.
More than 74 percent of women who are raped are attacked by men they know, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The premise behind GPS is that there is a stranger danger,” Coombs said. “In this case, the victim knew the perpetrators. This wasn’t a case of a stranger in the bushes.”
What actually makes people safer is training like My Strength, and helping sex offenders meet their immediate needs for housing, employment and family support, Coombs said.
Sex offenders also respond to therapy, according to Adams, who once treated imprisoned sex offenders in her work for the Department of Corrections. Yet sex offenders are one of the only populations who don’t get treatment in prison, nor are the vast majority subject to mandatory treatment on parole.
Under California’s Sex Offender Commitment Law, which took effect in 1996, sex offenders are evaluated to determine whether they are sexually violent predators. If they are classified this way, they’re subject to civil commitment.
Since 1996, 30,000 sex offenders have been referred to the state Department of Mental Health for review as sexually violent predators, according November 2009 statistics from the department. About 1,700 have been classified as sexually violent predators and are committed and mandated to treatment. This population represents the “top 1 percent of the worst of the worst” offenders, said department spokesperson Nancy Kincaid.
No treatment is offered specifically for sex offenders on parole who are not designated as sexually violent predators, according to Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson Peggy Bengs.
“There is a body of research, and I think we know a fair amount about [preventing] violence now,” Adams said. “It’s a matter of whether or not we chose to apply the knowledge that we have.”
As McLaughlin staffer Valentino pointed out in the community meeting after the Richmond rape, “It’s not the first time that it’s happened, and it won’t be the last unless we make it the last.”
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