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Jill Gruenberg: Guest opinion

Jill Gruenberg
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

For anyone whose work is to bring awareness to an issue that most people would rather not think about, there are no more discouraging words to hear than “But that doesn’t happen here, does it?”

No one can argue that Aspen and the surrounding Roaring Fork Valley are not an idyllic location; however, the geographic beauty, the healthy lifestyle, the sense of support and trust within the close-knit community and the overall affluence don’t erase the fact that some in our community experience hunger, poverty, homelessness and, yes, domestic violence and sexual assault.

Two recent stories in our local papers show that sadly, Pitkin County is no less immune to these issues of abuse than any other community. The bad news is that these events happened, right here, under our noses, in our towns and, most sadly, in our schools. The good news is that breaking through denial is the first step necessary to effect change, and hopefully now no one can cling to the misguided belief that it can’t or doesn’t happen here. The truth is that the perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual assault are equal-opportunity offenders. They don’t care how beautiful, smart, educated or rich you – or the community that you live in – are.

Last week a brave young woman named Jesse, a junior at Aspen High School, shared her story of teen dating violence to a room of parents and their teenage children. (See the full story at http://www.aspentimes.com.) Jesse was 14 when she began what would become an abusive relationship that included the early warning signs of isolation from her family and friends, his controlling behavior of constantly calling and texting her to know where she was and who she was with, and his irrational jealousy. Eventually this culminated in an act of violence that occurred at Aspen High School in which he shoved her against the wall, slammed her head against the bricks and punched her in the stomach. If you weren’t at Jesse’s talk, you might think that we are talking about a girl with low self-esteem and poor boundaries, a girl without a strong and supportive family environment, a girl without a group of close peers. You’d be dead wrong.

What makes Jesse’s story so powerful is that Jesse defies our stereotype of what we think a “victim” would be like. She is smart, beautiful, self-confident, loved deeply by her mother and father, and well liked and respected by her peers. Yet somehow this happened to her, and it happened at Aspen High School. She is proof that it can happen to anyone, anywhere.

Jesse’s message to our students is so meaningful because when they look at her, they are looking at themselves. They are challenged to understand that anyone can be a victim of intimate-partner violence, and this simple truth says more about the abuser and the tactics of abuse than it says about the victim. They are shown that there is no shame in speaking out about it. Jesse is no longer a victim of teen dating violence – she is a survivor. She has taken her experience of pain and trauma and worked vigorously to heal those wounds and is now using her experience to educate others.

Even more recently, a Basalt High School teacher and coach, Lauren Redfern, has been charged with a felony sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust. In Redfern’s instance, although there is a subtle line between what is considered legal or illegal based on Colorado statute regarding sexual assault, there is no question regarding the ethics, morality or decency of her actions.

The fact is that when we send our children to school we expect them to be in a safe environment guided and supervised by adults who have the ability to make sound decisions and judgments. Apparently the high school student claims that he pursued Redfern romantically, and while this may be true, it should have no bearing on the fact that Redfern acted wrongly.

We would expect our teachers and coaches to exercise appropriate boundaries, especially when a 17-year-old can’t. I was equally saddened to hear from a young woman, who attended a local party after the story of the assault made the news, that when the 17-year-old boy entered, he was greeted by cheers and applause from his peers. The attitude this conveys is that our young adults believe that a 17-year-old boy having sex with a 25-year-old teacher is a triumph or a conquest and not the assault or victimization that it is.

Whenever someone in a position of authority and trust abuses this power and crosses the boundaries, no matter how willing the other person is, abuse has occurred.

Our teachers and our coaches are our children’s role models, and as such we should hold them to the highest standards. Perhaps the greatest irony is that as the health teacher, Redfern was the person charged with teaching Basalt High School’s adolescents what it means to be in a healthy relationship. Specifically, Colorado’s Healthy Youth Act, signed into law in 2007, sets the standard that high school health curriculum teaches “students skills for making responsible and healthy choices about sexual activity, personal power, boundary setting, and resisting peer pressure, including how to avoid unwanted verbal, physical, and sexual advances and how to avoid making unwanted verbal, physical, and sexual advances.” Based on these guidelines, I’d say Redfern failed her own class.

These are but two of the stories that we at RESPONSE hear on a regular basis. Instances of sexual assault and domestic violence involving teenagers and adults happen right here every week. At least the fact that we as a community are talking about them moves us one step out of ignorance and one step closer to awareness. Because we all know that you can’t improve a problem until you’ve first acknowledged that the problem exists.


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