Officials hope education leads to rape prevention

Nurses lead demonstrations for teens to open dialogue

April 21, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

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.

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