Lawrence group aims to halt street harassment

LAWRENCE — A group of Lawrence residents is trying to end street harassment and make the university town safer by launching a Hollaback chapter.

The chapter, known as Hollaback Lawrence, is part of the global Hollaback movement dedicated to ending street harassment through the use of social networking and mobile technology. Street harassment is verbal or physical sexual harassment that occurs in public places.

Hollaback Lawrence, begun a few months ago by co-founders Ailecia Ruscin and Jaimie Oller, has grown to include eight members and several volunteers.

"We're hoping to raise awareness of the effects street harassment can have in a long-term way," Oller said, adding perpetrators often think their actions have no consequences.

Using Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, Hollaback allows victims of street harassment and violence to share their experiences and gain support from each other.

Hollaback offers iPhone and Droid apps, which allow victims to post a real-time response to street harassment. They also can share their experiences at Hollaback Lawrence's website.

"They can go on the website and record their story and get it off their chest," Ruscin said. "They can feel like a part of the community and find some instant therapy and support."

Eventually, the location of each incident will be placed on a Google map to show areas in the city with higher rates of street harassment, she said. That information may aid the chapter in writing a grant to install better lighting and improve sidewalks to make neighborhoods safer.

Ruscin, who has lived in Lawrence for 11 years, said several of her friends have been victims of verbal or physical street harassment. In one case, bystanders watched a young woman being beaten and did nothing to stop the attack.

As a result, the chapter hopes to offer bystander training to provide skills to help mediate and defuse the harassment rather than watching or taking photos and videos.

Ruscin said the chapter especially wants to offer the training to fraternities, sororities and other campus groups, as well as community organizations.

Oller said some Hollaback chapters focus on street harassment of women or lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals. The Lawrence chapter will include all street harassment victims.

"Chapters organize in a way that best fits their town," Ruscin said.

Hollaback, based in New York City, has sites in 37 U.S. cities and 15 countries. The Lawrence chapter is the first in Kansas.