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Ashtabula Co. Library displays outfits victims were wearing when they were sexually assaulted

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Posted at 8:34 PM, Apr 20, 2022

ASHTABULA COUNTY, Ohio — The Ashtabula County District Library is filled with thousands of stories, both fiction and nonfiction, taking readers to far away lands.

“This library and all of the libraries act as a hub for communication for internet access, for knowledge,” said Colleen O’Toole, the Ashtabula County prosecutor.

In a wing of the library, you’ll find testimonials from anonymous authors that tell their own stories from here at home in Northeast Ohio.

“All of the victims are anonymous and we have their consent to put this forward,” said O’Toole. “All of these incidents actually occurred here in Northeast Ohio.”

The testimonials are just a part of the "What I Was Wearing" exhibit in the library. The focus is the dozen or so outfits and pieces of clothing hanging near the testimonials. The idea: Show real examples and experiences of victims of sexual assault.

O’Toole said shedding light on sexual assault is something she’s been wanting to do.

“I ran on a platform of bringing Ashtabula County into the 21st century,” she said.

O’Toole noted that while she hasn’t been the prosecutor for a long time, she was shocked and saddened to see how many of the cases her office sees involves sexual assault, often involving a minor.

“Sexual assault is one of the number one things we have in our county and 75% of the cases go unreported. It keeps our dockets extremely busy. I noticed that there were many biased or implicit things that people thought they knew about it but they didn’t,” said O’Toole. “The cultural bias and the old attitudes still prevail among many citizens and there’s not a lot out there to help them dispel that.”

She is a mentor in Case Western Reserve University’s course, "Collaborative Practices." It brings together grad students in the school, studying in different fields, and has them deal with community problems and ways to solve them.

Tara Daniel and Leila Bushweller are students in the course.

“I thought it would be really interesting to engage with the rural county because I've only lived in urban areas and just learning more about like the issues that that community faces and trying to like have a small impact on that community seem really interesting to me personally,” said Bushweller.

The group, inspired by O’Toole, decided to address sexual assault in Ashtabula County. They sent out google polls throughout social media, Ashtabula County community groups and asked a few questions: Were you sexually assaulted? What were you wearing? What do you wish you could’ve known? What do you wish you could’ve said?

“What were you wearing is a question that's commonly asked to survivors after they were assaulted,” said Daniel. “Oftentimes people have this idea in their heads that is wrong like, ‘Oh, if you were wearing something tight or short, you were quote unquote asking for it to happen,’ which is ridiculous.”

The responses showed that people were wearing sweatshirts, jeans, an army combat uniform, and even one response that said: "It didn’t matter what I was wearing—I was four."

The library shows replicas of the outfits.

“I think I found the ones with children really haunting, especially like the stories—like what they're wearing, like, it's just like children's pajamas,” said Bushweller.

The hope for O’Toole is that by bringing a hushed, veiled crime out into the open, more victims are empowered to report their perpetrator and more people in the community understand that sexual assault can happen to anyone.

“ I really hope that it brings the problem right front and center to them, especially when they see issues of children, you don’t think as sexual assault affecting everyone from the oldest person to the youngest. When they walk through this hopefully they see these people as average citizens, people that they know, their neighbors.”

The exhibit will be on display at the Ashtabula County Library until the end of April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness month.