Oregon State University President Ed Ray has challenged all students, faculty, staff and community members to work together to end sexual violence. His challenge follows the announcement on Sept. 19 by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden of the “It’s On Us” campaign to raise awareness of – and ultimately prevent – sexual assaults on university campuses.
Student Health Services Executive Director Jenny Haubenreiser said that while sexual violence has been a problem on college campuses for decades, the approach that OSU and other universities are now taking emphasizes an enhanced collaborative approach to creating a safe environment.
“We need to have honest conversations with our students about the context in which these crimes occur and ways they can prevent sexual violence and protect their peers without blaming victims,” Haubenreiser said. Often referred to as bystander intervention, this approach educates and empowers men and women who see potentially dangerous or harmful situations to intervene, even if it’s uncomfortable or embarrassing.
“We need to say ‘this won’t happen on our campus, or in our residence halls, or in our home,’” Haubenreiser said. “Students need to feel comfortable saying, ‘Hey, this doesn’t look right, I’m going to do something to intervene.’”
Sexual violence often occurs in an environment involving heavy alcohol use. Being alert to potentially dangerous situations is especially important, as the potential victim may be incapacitated or otherwise unable to voice consent or refusal. In other situations, the person may be coerced physically or verbally, and bystander intervention can sometimes deflect the situation or distract the potential abuser, allowing the situation to be diffused or prevented.
Central to these efforts is the importance of addressing offenders and the culture of sexual violence and alcohol abuse that fosters many of these situations. A growing effort is being made across campuses, including OSU, to engage men in discussions about stopping sexual violence. This effort includes creating a greater understanding of what consent means and how to clearly gain consent, to empowering men to speak up when their peers are being sexually derogatory or otherwise creating an atmosphere that degrades women.
Haubenreiser said that while individual, one-time assaults do occur, more is known about serial perpetrators, who often use alcohol or other drugs to incapacitate victims before assaulting them. The good news is the vast majority of students want to be active and engaged in creating a campus free from sexual violence.
Rob Reff, substance abuse prevention coordinator with Student Health Services, will be taking an active role in a new center on campus, the Alcohol, Other Drugs and Violence Prevention Center, which will focus on prevention of alcohol and drug abuse and as well as sexual violence. SHS is currently hiring a new sexual violence prevention educator, who will be a key member of the center.
“We are looking at preventing behaviors from occurring in the first place, and looking at what we know works, and how we can invest resources appropriately,” Reff said. “It’s a very complex issue and not one approach works for everyone.”
A big part of Reff’s job is outreach, including student organizations, the Greek community, athletics, ROTC and other places where students congregate and socialize. Not only do these visits help get the word out about current OSU programs, and important topics such as consent and bystander intervention, but it also helps Reff gather information from students on what’s relevant to them, as he looks to develop future strategies.
“We are looking at national models and best practices,” he said. “We will adapt and implement them to meet the needs of our community.”
This fall, OSU introduced a new series of required online courses aimed at combating alcohol abuse and sexual assault. The on-line programs will reach approximately 6,400 students. Haven, which is now required for all incoming students, helps educate students on sexual assault prevention, consent and how to be an active bystander. Reff said taking these course before they even arrive on campus sets community standards for students about how seriously the OSU community takes alcohol abuse and sexual violence.
“We sometimes refer to the courses as their first vaccine,” Reff said, “and then their booster shots are programs and services we’ll offer throughout their time at OSU.”
While prevention is key, faculty and staff on campus need to be aware of both their role in the support network for sexual violence survivors, and also their responsibilities if a student choses to share information on a possible assault or other incident that falls under the umbrella of sexual harassment (including stalking and domestic violence).
Roni Sue, Senior Title IX Response and Prevention Associate with the OSU Office of Equity and Inclusion, said when a faculty or staff member is approached by a student who wants to confide in them over a matter that might involve sexual harassment (which includes sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual coercion and more), they can rely on a set of guidelines provided by the university to help them deal with the potentially traumatic discussion.
First of all, staff members should assess if the person’s safety is at immediate risk, and if so, help them to safety, including contacting OSP or CARDV. If the threat is not immediate, then staff members should inform the student as quickly as possible that they want to provide help and support, but that as an OSU employee they have a limited ability to ensure complete confidentiality.
“Often a student will say ‘I want to tell you something but I don’t want you to tell anybody,’” Sue said. However, due to Title IX rules, there are some situations in which staff (including student employees) and faculty must consult with the Office of Equity and Inclusion. Sue said it’s important to be up front with students while making them feel safe. Then the student can choose to continue their disclosure, or the faculty member can guide them to a resource that can maintain full confidentiality, such as a counselor or nurse.
If the student still wants to confide, Sue said it is important to believe their disclosure and listen with empathy and without judgment.
“They may be angry, or scared, or flat, or all three, during the conversation,” she said. “It’s important to be aware of your own expectations about what a survivor is going to look like and not make judgments. You want to validate them.”
Next, the faculty or staff member should provide the student with options so that they can make an educated decision about what to do next, if anything. This includes providing a list of resources, on and off campus, both confidential and non-confidential.
“Often survivors feel very disempowered,” Sue said, “so it’s important to provide that information in a supportive manner. You don’t want to direct the student toward one course of action, but offer resources, and say ‘Would you like me to help you with…’ rather than ‘You should do this.’”
Faculty or staff who would like some guidance or tips on how to speak with a student in crises are invited to call Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS), whose members can provide information on how to respectfully listen and support students who come to them for help.
Judy Neighbours, sexual assault support services coordinator for CAPS, said the most important things to consider when listening to a survivor is to convey the message that it is not their fault, and that they are believed.
“Let them tell their story the way they want to, which could be in fragments, or could take a long time,” she said. “Avoid asking questions, except those that elicit further clarity.”
Neighbours said a big mistake listeners make is to ask for a lot of detail, when often a survivor’s memory of the incident is not intact. Too many questions can cause a survivor to start filling in the blanks of pieces they don’t remember, and could contaminate their story.
“Just practice good listening,” she said. “Paraphrase or reflect back what they’ve told you, and ask what you can do to help them. Don’t overload them with options but give them one or two referrals.”
Neighbours said that the OSU Sexual Assault Services Support line (541-737-7604) is an important resource and can provide free, confidential assistance to survivors.
When a university employee learns of any sexual harassment, including sexual/dating/domestic violence that has been allegedly perpetrated by an OSU student or faculty member, or has occurred on OSU property or during an OSU activity (including off campus events/study abroad), or is creating continued effects in the educational setting (such as a perpetrator now being in the same class as the survivor), they must consult a representative of the Office of Equity and Inclusion at 541-737-3556 or firstname.lastname@example.org. An OEI representative will consult with the employee and determine reasonable steps to help stop the behavior, address the effects and prevent future occurrences.
~ Theresa Hogue