'We Need to Protect Our Survivors.' Students Support Violence Victims at Clothesline Project Ceremony

By Lindsey Piercy

In front of a crowd of fellow classmates, faculty, staff and local leaders, victimology student Ann Pitts stepped to the podium and began to share a heartfelt story of hurt, hope and healing.

"Beyond protecting society from crime, we need to protect our survivors," Pitts said. "This has inspired a fire in me to keep pushing for change."

Pitts is one of several passionate students who had a hand in organizing the Clothesline Project held on the University of Kentucky campus on April 12.

"I decided to speak because I believe if you want to change things, you have to be brave. I wasn't just being brave for myself but for all of the survivors in the audience," Pitts continued. "I was silent for three years of my life, but I know now that it's time to speak up. I don't want survivors to think speaking out is the only option towards healing. I want to inspire them to take the steps they need to heal, and I want them to know that I'm here for them."

Postdoctoral fellow Emily Bonistall Postel's Sociology 439: Victimology Class hosted the eye-opening event during National Crime Victim’s Rights Week. The goal was to promote visibility, education and action around the issues of interpersonal violence on campuses.

"How can we prevent violence, how can we intervene if we see it unfolding, how can we support victims in the aftermath of their experiences? This is what my students have done here today. They have created an event, a space, to show victims that we support them. In doing so, they have taken the course material beyond the classroom walls. They used information learned in class to guide their decisions, ensuring that they took a victim-centered approach to all event planning," Postell said.

In the weeks leading up to the ceremony, the class held drop-in hours, providing survivors a safe space to break their silence. Those personally affected by violence designed T-shirts. "You did not defeat me," "love should never hurt" and "your actions do not define me" were just some of the moving messages strung across the Jacobs Science Building Atrium on Thursday evening — displayed in public view as testimony of assault and abuse.

"Those of you who have emptied your hearts and souls on those T-shirts, I commend you for your courage," UK President Eli Capilouto said. "This university is committed to your well-being."

In hopes of transforming our current culture into one that believes all survivors, support statements were also on display in the courtyard. The hand-written notecards featured words of encouragement such as, "we believe you," "your voice matters" and "you are loved."

The event, which was sponsored by the UK Police Department in association with the Violence Intervention and Prevention Center, gave supporters and survivors the chance to come together, share resources and illuminate the stories of victims of violent crime.

"I felt a sense of accomplishment standing next to the students who worked so hard for the Clothesline Project. They welcomed me with enthusiasm. As I listened to the students’ speeches, I was honored to know them personally. I know what this day meant to them, and I was proud to see them push through their fears and allow the community to see their vulnerability," UKPD Officer Samantha Hess said. "The courage they had today was truly inspiring. When I walked back to my cruiser, I felt like this was another important step in developing the support system our campus needs.”

The formal program included special remarks from Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear. Under his stewardship, the Office of the Attorney General has a specific mission of preventing and prosecuting child abuse, protecting seniors from scams and abuse, better addressing Kentucky’s drug epidemic and seeking justice for victims of rape.

Beshear detailed his ongoing efforts to support survivors. In 2015, Kentucky's state auditor uncovered more than 3,000 Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (SAFE) kits backlogged in police departments and in the Kentucky State Police (KSP) crime lab. The following year, the Office of the Attorney General provided $4.5 million in settlement money to lawmakers to fund requested KSP crime lab upgrades. The SAFE Act of 2016 ensures the submission of all SAFE kits, requires that police receive training to conduct victim-centered sexual assault investigations and that timelines are set for testing kits.

Beshear told the crowd, crime is not a job, it's a mission. "We have a duty to fight until sexual assault is no longer acceptable at the University of Kentucky or across the Commonwealth," Beshear said. "I believe we're in a period of rapid cultural change and if we demand it, we will achieve it."

The powerful ceremony, which brought some to tears, concluded with a final student speaker. Brendan Mathews, a student in the victimology class, wanted to get two significant messages across.

"For those that were there to support survivors, I wanted them to know that they have a voice to use to stand up and say 'no more' to the ways our current culture blames survivors for circumstances that were beyond their control. Everyone has a voice to use to speak up in support of survivors," Mathews continued. "My second message, and the most important one, was directly for any survivors in the audience. I wanted every survivor to know that their experiences are real and valid, and no one can extinguish their light. There are no prerequisites to anyone’s worthiness in this world, and no survivor should ever have to feel like there are. I want all survivors to know that, from one survivor to another, I value you and support you. I will always be here for you. I will never stop fighting for you. I believe you."

This is the first year the class participated in the Clothesline Project. The goal is to educate students and the community that violence is a problem everywhere, and help is available.

UK is the University for Kentucky. At UK, we are educating more students, treating more patients with complex illnesses and conducting more research and service than at any time in our 150-year history. To read more about the UK story and how you can support continued investment in your university and the Commonwealth, go to: uky.edu/uk4ky. #uk4ky #seeblue