Recent reports of sexual assault on campus have sparked tough conversations among students and faculty members the past few weeks.
It is a delicate subject to discuss, but people should be talking about it and should be informed about the situation, said Tom Pyle, Athens Police Department Chief. Most reported assaults occur in private residences, and the victim is usually acquainted with the offender.
“There has been some notion that there is a rapist on the loose that hides in the bushes and attacks unsuspecting college students, when in fact the majority of the cases we have been receiving, have been between the perpetrator is either known or even shortly acquainted with the person or the survivor,” Pyle said.
The Division of Student Affairs is combating these challenging conversations by requiring sexual misconduct training, said Kimberly Castor, the director of the Survivor Advocacy Program and a licensed social worker. This training instructs employees on how to respond when someone explains that they have been assaulted.
Nikhita Shah, an intern and graduate assistant at SAP, has found empathizing and believing victims to be both one of the most important aspects and one of the most effective ways of discussion. Shah said it is important to let victims talk when they feel comfortable and not pushing them to pursue different options.
Both Shah and another intern and graduate assistant, Maeve Hinze, said that it is important to be mindful of the victim’s experience. The survivor has lost a lot of their power, so it is important for a responder to do anything they can in order to help the survivor regain that power.
“Listen first. Believe them. Provide empathy,” Hinze said. “Don't minimize their experience or say that you know someone who has gone through something worse.”
It is important for parents and family members to act as support, and not as another person trying to investigate the situation and looking for a solution, Castor said.
“Parents often want to fix the situation for their student, which is understandable, but not always possible,” Castor said. “We make sure parents and families know the importance of helping their student regain control over their life by allowing them to make decisions for themselves.”
One of the roles that survivor advocates have is acting as a mediator between the survivor and their parents, said Andrew Norris, a licensed social worker and survivor advocate. This includes talking about court dates and university hearings. Norris said that it is a way to help secondary survivors feel empowered.
Another survivor advocate and licensed social worker, Kristen “KC” Waltz, said SAP is a good way for co-survivors and family to discuss what they have endured without mentioning the survivor. However, they can mention the survivor if they have written permission.
Survivor advocates often share techniques like “hold space,” Waltz said. This a good way to help co-survivors and parents support their loved ones. It also expands the ability to hold difficult conversations regarding reported sexual assaults on campus.
“We often remind parents and co-survivors that they need to take care of themselves as well,” Waltz said.