Public officials and advocacy workers joined University of Arkansas at Fort Smith students on Friday in solidarity against sexual assault and domestic violence — issues that are predictors of local problems that have plagued the Fort Smith region for years, according to one advocate.
"When you hear the horrible statistics about foster care, jail overcrowding and drug abuse, mental health problems and suicide, know that these problems for these people that you know could be directly linked to adverse childhood experiences like sexual assault and domestic violence,” Crisis Intervention Center Director Penni Burns said during a speech at UAFS’ annual Rising in the River Valley event Friday.
Held annually on Valentine's Day at UAFS, Rising in the River Valley aims to bring together the Fort Smith community to bring awareness to the issues Burns spoke of. Those present at the event beneath the campus bell tower around noon Friday were students, Fort Smith police, state officials, clergy and nonprofit directors.
Burns during her speech estimated two of every five to six women and one of every four men by college age have experienced sexual violence. On top of that, one of every five to six women and one of every 38 men by college age have been raped, she estimated
UAFS Chancellor Terisa Riley estimated one in three women and one in four men experience violence from their partners in their lifetimes.
"It will be someone you know," Burns said. "You will see them in the hall, you will high-five them after telling a joke, you will trade looks in the mirror at the gym and you will honk and wave at them in the parking lot."
This concept resonated with Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who spoke at the event.
"When I was growing up, one of my classmates — her mother taught school and her grandmother worked at the school — her name was Allison. I was much smaller and much shorter, if you can imagine. Allison would watch out for me when the boys would pick on me after school. Unfortunately, Allison lost her life to her husband," she said. "I wish I had been there to support and protect Allison just as she had supported and protected me when we were younger."
In response to this reality, Burns asked students and everyone present to be "the person a sexual assault survivor needs." This means sharing resources with them, being encouraging and listening well, she said.
Student Government Association Secretary Ana Hernandez in her organization’s resolution stated that advocating to stop domestic violence and sexual assault is "in the best interest of UAFS and its students."
"Be it resolved that SGA fully supports the goals of Rising in the River Valley and its fight against domestic violence, sexual assault and relationship violence," Hernandez said.
"There is no greater sorrow that I face in any day than the thought of anyone hurting my students," Riley said through tears during her speech.
Others asked for the messages conveyed at the event to expand beyond UAFS.
"We’re strong because we’re taking a strong stand against domestic violence to stand up and speak out," said Fort Smith Mayor George McGill during his speech. “Let’s be a strong city. Anything that’s a detriment or a scar on our community in the River Valley, let’s be bold and take a stand."
After the addresses, those at the event marched from the UAFS bell tower to the Baldor Technology Center. They then had their picture taken while standing in the shape of a ribbon.
"Our challenge today is to change this culture," Riley said. "Rise up, end the violence and break this cycle, I beg of you."