Officials hope education leads to rape prevention

The Baltimore Sun

The photograph shows a young man in glasses posing behind a stem of lilies, his head tilted toward the camera and a half-smile playing at his lips.

"What do we think of him?" Linda Kelly asked the class of Baltimore County high school students. "He looks kind of nerdy, don't you think?"

One girl disagreed, saying he looked smart. Another student volunteered that the guy "doesn't look shady."

The image came from the MySpace profile of John C. Gaumer, the former University of Maryland, Baltimore County student who was sentenced last year to life in prison without the possibility of parole for raping and fatally beating a woman he met on the social networking site.

Kelly, a forensic nurse who conducts sexual assault forensic examinations at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, uses the picture - and the chilling facts of the Gaumer case - in an unusual new presentation to middle and high school students about healthy relationships and safe dating.

"When the Gaumer case was just beginning, as I read the scenario, I thought, 'This is the perfect worst-case scenario to share with kids,'" Kelly said. "What struck me about seeing him is what I share with them: Look at him. How would you ever know this person had the ability to be so violent? ... These people don't wear horns and have a tail. They look just like the rest of us."

Joyce Dantzler, deputy director of the state's Center for Health Promotion, which includes a rape-prevention education program, said she knows of no other initiative that brings forensic nurses to students to talk about sexual assault.

"Anything that puts rape and sexual assault on the minds of young people ... is very valuable," she said. "For so long, the issue was something that was hidden and shameful and an embarrassment, and part of the reason why victims are so reluctant to talk and come forward. But if we move these conversations into our classrooms and church groups and neighborhoods and begin to have a dialogue about it, that's incredibly valuable."

Kelly decided to put together her presentation after a pattern emerged from the cases that ended up in her exam room. Two-thirds of the patients she sees in the hospital's unit for sexual assault forensic examinations are women and girls between the ages of 13 and 24. Most of the assaults involved someone the patient knew, as well as the use of alcohol or drugs.

"What became very frustrating to me was to hear the same story over and over - that young people were getting into situations that they don't have the skills or the maturity to deal with, and they were making poor decisions," Kelly said. "Things get out of hand very quickly, and those little girls end up here getting a SAFE exam."

She began speaking last year at area private schools, for church groups and at other community gatherings. This school year, Baltimore County school officials welcomed the program into their health curriculum. She has visited more than two dozen classes at eight public and private schools since January.

"I don't think she talked about anything I haven't talked about with them. But when you bring in experts - and personal stories - it brings it home," said Linda King, the health and physical education chairwoman at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson, who invited Kelly to speak to her classes. "You get kids today by keeping it real. She kept it real. She kept it current."

In two recent presentations at Carver, Kelly passed around a "rape kit," the oversized envelope filled with smaller envelopes that nurses use to preserve evidence collected during exams.

She showed students the little stick that nurses use to scrape out whatever evidence might have collected under a victim's fingernails during an attack - particularly if the victim scratched the attacker or fought back.

And she let students "be CSI" with a black light that nurses use to locate stains and dried fluids that often contain case-cracking DNA in rapes. After painting a little smiley face in laundry detergent on the forearm of one student, Kelly stepped back and watched as another student waved the black light over the body of the teenager playing the patient in the dimly lit classroom.

"Now typically what I find is not represented as a smiley face," Kelly said, "but it does jump out at you like that."

Nursing is a second career for Kelly, 60, a grandmother and Baltimore native who spent more than two decades in health care management before becoming a registered nurse. She tried out surgical and geriatric nursing before finding her place in 2005 in the SAFE program, named for the examinations that the team's nurses conduct.

She refers to the teenage victims she meets at the hospital as "little girls" and self-deprecatingly jokes during her school presentations about how times have changed since she was the students' age.

"We did have phones, but they were not mobile and they were usually affixed to the wall. When we got the 13-foot coil cord, that was a big deal," she told one class.

"Now, in cyberspace, the world is open to all of you," she added. "Mine was limited to my street, my alley, my little neighborhood."

Those changes, Kelly told students, have made their lives - and the dating worlds they inhabit - more complicated, more accelerated and less structured.

The Carver students said the cases that Kelly spoke of made the presentation more interesting and less corny than school sex-education classes can sometimes be. She told them about Gaumer and the woman he killed, Josie P. Brown; about Ted Bundy, who was executed in 1989 in Florida for the sexual assault and murder of dozens of women across the country; and about Natalee Holloway, the Alabama teen who disappeared in 2005 during a high school graduation trip to Aruba.

"It was more real," said Nivia Ham, a 17-year-old Randallstown girl studying dance at Carver. "It was local. That was the thing that really got me. It doesn't just happen in [other] states. ... Even here, you have to watch - and even with nice people you talk to. They can be dangerous, too."

Christine Thompson, 16, of Owings Mills, who is studying theater at Carver, said the presentation scared her a little. "He looked like a regular, nice guy," she said of Gaumer. And although she doesn't plan to date anyone she meets through the Internet, she said the talk reinforced the importance of "being mindful of what can happen."

Shayna Blank, 16, of Brooklandville, who is studying literary arts at Carver, said she appreciated Kelly's straightforward approach - "that she didn't jump around the subject ... or try to spare us because she thought we were younger and couldn't handle it."

"I think I have a pretty level head," she added, "but hearing about that kind of thing makes you realize that not everyone is good and not everyone is who they say they are - or even who they act like."


Safe dating

Tips from SAFE nurse Linda Kelly's presentations to students about healthy relationships and safe dating:

Be cautious of anyone you meet over the Internet. "This person is nothing but the 'electronic persona' that they've created for you. You don't know anything about them."

When you first start dating someone you don't know well, meet the person in a public place: If you get into his car on a first date, "you might as well just go out and flag a stranger down and get in the car with them."

Stay sober. Don't "go wild" as if you're in a spring break video: "Advocates say that a girl doesn't deserve to get raped no matter how drunk she is. Do we agree with that? Sure. But would you walk down the middle of [Interstate] 695 and expect not to get hit by a car? Why would I put myself in that vulnerable of a situation?"

If you do drink alcohol when you are of age, stay with friends and stick to bottled beverages that you open yourself to prevent anyone from slipping anything into your drink: "With the SAFE exam, we used to test [the victim] for three or four drugs. Now we test for more than 60 drugs, including over-the-counter medications like Benadryl."[Source: Linda Kelly, clinical manager of the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination program at Greater Baltimore Medical Center]

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