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Denim Day: Tosa East Senior's Project Resonates Through State

McKenna Nerone's rape survivors awareness project draws wide public attention, but it also spurs individual victims to speak up for themselves, knowing someone who cares is listening.

Wauwatosa Mayor Kathy Ehley wore jeans to work Wednesday.

So did Tosa East High Principal Nick Hughes. And Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. And Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.

They encouraged their employees to do the same – in Tosa, all those not in uniform, Ehley said.

All because Tosa East High itself also wore jeans – 1,050 pairs of them, covering the campus fence to call startling attention to Denim Day, a day to remember and support survivors of rape.

McKenna Nerone promised that her senior community service project would draw attention, and it did. Drivers on Wauwatosa Avenue slowed and stared. Those who were expecting something – perhaps not sure what – honked in appreciation of McKenna's work.

For weeks, McKenna has been collecting blue jeans. Each pair on the fence stands for a woman raped – one every two minutes – during just the hours McKenna spends in school over a week.

Blue jeans are the symbol of Denim Day because of an Italian rape case in which the defendant was freed – because a judge said the victim's jeans were too tight and therefore she could not have removed them unwillingly.

The outpouring of support for McKenna's display was astonishing.

"This isn't all," McKenna said. "I've got 700 or 800 more."

She has a full day ahead after a long night. McKenna and a hardy group of friends started hanging jeans at about 11:30 p.m., she said, and finished at 2:30 a.m.

"We had about 24 people working for awhile," she said. "It looked pretty powerful even in the dark, but now in the daylight – wow."

She was back at the school at 6 a.m., as bright as she could be on little sleep, but far from done.

Mayor Ehley arrived at 7:30 to read a proclamation declaring April 24 Denim Day in Wauwatosa. At 9:15, McKenna had a news conference scheduled with Barrett. Then she would be off to Madison for another with Van Hollen.

But while all the official attention is gratifying and important to her cause, McKenna found the most moving moments in her effort surprising and personal.

There was the young woman who donated jeans and said she had been raped at knifepoint three years before, at 17. She had never told anyone. Because of McKenna's courage to speak up for her, she said, she was going to tell her parents what had happened.

And then there was the Tosa shopowner.

McKenna's mom, Kimberly, called it the most moving experience of all.

"We stopped in and McKenna asked if she would put a poster up," Kimberly said, "and the woman said no, she didn't like to have things in her windows. I just pulled on McKenna and said, 'Come on, let's go.'"

"But McKenna said, 'Well, can I at least tell you my story?' And she said, 'OK, tell me your story.'

"She began to cry. And she said, 'I'm one of them.' A rape survivor.

"She said, 'Sure, I'll put up your poster, and I'll collect jeans for you. A week later she called, and we went to pick them up. She had a Suburban full of jeans."

There were many more. Women who "came out" to McKenna as quiet survivors, overcoming a wholly unnecessary shame at being a helpless victim, suddenly realizing there was a voice speaking for them.

McKenna said the experience of her Denim Day project will stay with her throughout her life – but don't expect it to become who she is. One lesson in this is that someone in any walk of life can take a stand to right a wrong.

"A lot of people ask me if I'm going to become a social worker," McKenna said. "But no, I'm not. I'm going to Hamline University in (St. Paul) Minnesota, and I'll be studying biology and Spanish, and taking pre-dental.

"I'm going to be an orthodontist."

John Q. Public April 24, 2013 at 05:40 PM
@Ann, Please explain how this young lady’s community service project is liberal and poising our society. Her project creates a physical presence representing an all too common and horrible crime – I don’t see how raising awareness about the issue is either liberal or conservative.
John Q. Public April 24, 2013 at 05:40 PM
correction... poisoning
ann April 24, 2013 at 06:16 PM
I appreciate what she is doing but the greater good would be to stop celebrating victimhood and start educating women by self defense against the next rape.
ann April 24, 2013 at 06:20 PM
Sorry Brian, I didn't mean to upset your delicate sensibilities. The Cross is certainly a symbol, although I do not think it is liberal or conservative. Let's just say if you had a Cross in front of your house in the olden times, you were not going to have a good day.
tosavoter April 24, 2013 at 06:32 PM
congratulations on a meaningful project and the powerful statement it makes about the attitudes toward rape in our society and world. You are to be commended by putting your concerns into action and making a difference.
John Q. Public April 24, 2013 at 06:40 PM
@Ann, I'm all for self defence training, whether it's mace, some sort of martial arts, a whistle, or your favorite, a gun. In no way is this young lady "celebrating victimhood"; I just read the article again, the key words are "remember and support survivors". Your original post indicated that this type of liberal symbolism is poisoning our society - but not everything is a liberal or conservative matter. Miss Nerone's efforts have garnered the attention of, and she will meet with, Tom Barrett - a liberal and JB Van Hollen - a conservative. I'll wager that neither of them will chastise her for poisoning our society.
KS April 24, 2013 at 07:02 PM
think outside that tiny box of yours, ann. there are more problems in the world than just rape and gun violence is one of them, for God's sake. this girl has brought attention to the topic, hopefully bringing awareness to people - not just that rape exists but also that it's an okay topic to talk about in public and with our children. not only that, but this girl - in a time when kids seem really screwed up and not ready for life - did this by herself for the purpose of helping others. everything about this gives me hope. and you, talking about this thing like it's poison - i think it's time to take a look in the mirror, ann.
John Q. Public April 24, 2013 at 08:01 PM
@Ann, How is raising awareness demeaning to “true victims of rape” and why is it “a stupid thing to do”? To your question of “Why jeans?”, I suggest you read the article, it’s pretty clear why she chose jeans. Seeing as the article also points out that she’s already planning on attending Hamline University, the idea that she’s padding her college application is a bunch of bunk – most seniors have their college selections planned at this point. I’m guessing that nothing that she did to raise awareness about rape would be ok with you, unless she sponsored a “lady’s night” firearms training course and handed out weapons to all attendees. Perhaps you could do that as a community service project.
Jim Price April 24, 2013 at 10:42 PM
I have deleted from this story all comments made or replied to by a single commenter who displayed an insensitivity so deep – or should I say shallow – that they amount to an offense against all decency and sense if not strictly the terms of use. Unfortunately, deleting original comments also removes the replies of those who challenged that commenter or defended the courage and creativity of the subject of this story. With regret that this story thread could not have been a forum for more thoughtful and considerate discussion, I am now going to bar all further comments.

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