Mayor John Stromberg and a few Ashland City Council members plan to meet with concerned residents who are advocating for the creation of a sexual assault working group in response to recent incidents in town.
Concerned resident Stephanie Tidwell is among two-dozen people who would like representatives from city government, the Ashland Police Department, local schools, Rogue Community College, Southern Oregon University, newspapers and agencies that care for victims of sexual assault to meet and discuss how to have a coordinated community response to sexual assaults.
Ideally, the meeting would be open to the public, televised, taped and moderated by a woman leader, Tidwell said.
Concerned residents want to know if organizations have a communication network in place that allows them to respond quickly and put out alerts about threats, she said.
Several incidents of sexual assault and suspected sexual assault have occurred in Ashland in December and January.
"We're concerned that we're piecing together what was happening from short articles in the newspaper," Tidwell said. "Sexual assault is always a problem in a community, but it's gotten much worse here. It's escalating. We weren't sure all measures were being taken. Not enough information is getting out to the community to let women take steps to make themselves safe while police look for the perpetrator or perpetrators."
Tidwell first brought her concerns before the Ashland City Council during a regular council meeting on Tuesday. Stromberg agreed at that time to set up a time to meet with her and asked for a few councilors to volunteer to join him.
Both Councilors Carol Voisin and Eric Navickas stepped forward and said they would strongly support the creation of a sexual assault working group.
In an interview later in the week, Ashland Police Department Chief Terry Holderness said the group could be useful.
"I don't think anything that brings awareness to a very significant issue is a bad idea," he said.
Holderness said the police department records incidents in its police log, which is faxed to the Ashland Daily Tidings and anyone else who asks for it.
"When there's something especially noteworthy, we put out a press release," he said.
Holderness said police have talked to representatives from Southern Oregon University, local schools and the Ashland Chamber of Commerce about the sexual assaults. They also distributed warning posters around town.
Police already had plans to work with Ashland Middle School to create an education program for students, he said.
"We were working with the school district before these events to develop an education program. A significant number of sexual assaults in this community are related to drugs and alcohol. By the end of the year, we expect to be in Ashland Middle School to teach about binge drinking and the possibility of sexual assault," Holderness said.
While older generations may have started experimenting with drugs and alcohol in high school or college, surveys of today's kids and teachers reveal that behavior starts in middle school, he said.
Alcohol may have played a factor in some of the recent sexual assaults.
Even if a woman has been drinking, she needs to report a sexual assault or suspected sexual assault as soon as possible so that evidence can be collected and police can investigate. In many cases, women don't report incidents until several days or even weeks later, Holderness said.
"You're still the victim. Let us know right away. Don't wait. Someone needs to go to jail," he said.
Holderness offered the following summary of recent reports of sexual assaults or suspected assaults:
- In mid-December, a Southern Oregon University student said she fell asleep at a party and awoke to find she was being sexually assaulted. A person is in custody in that case.
- On Dec. 12, a woman said she was raped by a male near Ashland Creek behind the downtown plaza. Police have a suspect, but the female did not allow police to collect physical evidence after the reported assault. Police believe the suspect may be someone the alleged victim talked to in a bar.
- A woman left a party at about 2 a.m. on New Year's Day and began walking toward downtown. She was found unconscious and hypothermic 10 hours later on Clear Creek Drive. She had significant injuries that police originally thought were the result of a physical attack. Police now believe the extent of her injuries was magnified by hypothermia, which can cause blood vessels to break and lead to or worsen bruising. A physical exam done at Rogue Valley Medical Center to determine whether she had been sexually assaulted was inconclusive. Holderness said there is still a substantial amount of evidence that she was a victim of some type of assault.
- A second woman reported she was sexually assaulted on New Year's Day. Police investigated and determined that the woman, who was intoxicated, had likely escaped being sexually assaulted.
- On Jan. 5, a woman who was walking in an alley near Ashland Fire Station No. 1 reported that a man approached, pushed her into a recessed area between buildings and raped her.
- Following the recent incidents, Ashland police checked up and down the Interstate 5 corridor for reports of sexual assaults by strangers and found a case of a stranger-related sexual assault in the town of Mt. Shasta, Calif. on Dec. 31. Police can't say conclusively yet whether the assault was related to any incidents in Ashland.
- Police are investigating a case of an assault by an acquaintance of an alleged victim. The incident was reported to police by a hospital that was not Ashland Community Hospital. It's not clear whether the reported assault occurred in Ashland, but the alleged victim ended up in Ashland.
Thursday's Ashland Police Department log contained an entry that police received a confidential report on Wednesday of possible sexual abuse in Ashland.
Sergeant Jim Alderman said he couldn't discuss details of the case, but that it was not related to a stranger attack. The case also didn't involve a child.
Police have warned women to be aware of their surroundings, to walk in busy and well-lit areas, not to walk alone and not to take drinks from anyone at a bar except a bartender.
Holderness said people who throw parties should make provisions to take care of people who become too intoxicated to care for themselves.
"These are all things we can do to help our neighbors," he said.
Meanwhile, Paul Moss, a local member of The ManKind Project, said his group is holding a meeting at 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 29, in the Ashland Public Library Gresham Room to discuss what men can do about sexual assaults.
"I just think it's time for men to step up and see what we can do as men," Moss said.
Through global New Warrior training adventures, The ManKind Project seeks to help men harness their aggressive energy to become both strong and loving, according to the group's Web site.
Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or email@example.com.