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Sexual assault talks hit home for students

Whether sexual assault survivor Brenda Tracy made an impact as the keynote speaker for the 2017 Voices of Men Breakfast and at half a dozen schools is not in question. The applause and the positive reviews were good indications. A Neenah High School student who said, “I have never felt more understood in my life” added powerful testimony.

There’s more compelling proof. Following Tracy’s Neenah presentation to about 1,000 11th- and 12th-graders, 15 students contacted staff at the high school or Reach Counseling to report abuse they experienced or abuse they knew someone else experienced.

“For any students to come forward is significant,” Reach Executive Director Lyn Beyer said. “But for 15 to come forward….”

Brenda Tracy. Above, at Neenah High School.

For those who reported they were being abused, the Reach counselors, school counselors and teachers are required by law to report that information to police. Others were reporting friends who are being abused, not always identifying the victims.

“They heard the message and they couldn’t just stand by and do nothing,” Beyer said. The message connected, she said, because Tracy is genuine and straight forward.

Tracy has been telling her story publicly since 2014. She talks about being gang raped in 1998 by four men, two of whom played football at Oregon State University. No charges were ever filed against her alleged rapists. The university suspended the football players for one game and required them to do 25 hours of community service for their “bad choices.” The statute of limitations ran out on prosecuting the case, so Tracy instead took her fight to state legislatures to change the law.

Her weeklong residency in the Fox Cities was supported by a $2,000 grant from the Bright Idea Fund at the Community Foundation. The types of grants offered from the fund include Spark grants for smaller projects. Grants of up to $2,500 for events and exhibits or $5,000 for programs are available. (See a list of all grants awarded from the Bright Ideas Fund.)

Tracy spoke to groups at UW-Fox Valley, Fox Valley Technical College, Lawrence University, UW-Oshkosh, Neenah High School and Appleton West High School. All of the assemblies were voluntary, which raised the possibility she would only be preaching to the choir rather than changing opinions and inspiring action.

Beyer said students heard a much more direct discussion of sexual assault than they are used to.

“This is a huge, huge issue,” she said, “and it continues to be huge because it’s been kept silent.”

One victim advocate at REACH Counseling received messages from a Neenah student during the presentation. She said she saw her own experiences in what Tracy was saying and she felt validated and empowered by what she heard.

Tracy’s appearance at the Voices of Men breakfast on Nov. 7 drew about 1,000 people. It’s estimated that another 1,000 listened to a livestream of it. A seven-minute video on her presentation has been watched more than 500 times.

Awareness is being driven by the #MeToo movement and the reports of harassment and assault coming out of Hollywood and Washington, Beyer said, with Reach seeing increases in calls and requests for assault exams since fall.

Tracy has worked closely with Oregon legislators to expand victims’ rights and has successfully helped to pass seven laws, including extending the Oregon statute of limitations to prosecute rape and mandatory testing of all rape kits in Oregon.

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