Safe Harbor is helping two Richmond-based universities step up their efforts to prevent sexual assaults on campus.
The University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University were awarded a three-year grant from the Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women, and their collaborative project is called the “Campus Alliance to End Violence.”
Stacie Vecchietti, Safe Harbor’s community organizing manager, said the agency has previously assisted the schools with awareness events such as Take Back the Night. Now the schools are revamping how they prevent and address cases of sexual and domestic violence on their campuses, in compliance with the Oct. 1 deadline to meet requirements of the Campus Saves Act.
“Campuses are having to hop to it because of the federal government,” Vecchietti said. Part of the Act mandates that the universities require every incoming student to participate in training pertaining to intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Vecchietti became involved with an advisory subcommittee to develop the education and training programs. “We [Safe Harbor] bring something to the table in terms of information, resources and experience in the prevention of sexual and domestic violence.”
In line with the mandate, VCU’s online training about sexual assault prevention is scheduled to roll out to 20,000 students this fall. And for the first time ever, VCU will conduct a campus climate survey to assess students’ needs for sexual assault services at the university.
With funding from the grant, VCU also approached Safe Harbor to facilitate counseling groups for student survivors of sexual assault. The group meetings take place on VCU’s campus and are also open to UR students. According to Vanessa Durrant, Safe Harbor’s director of counseling and advocacy, these students are a population that the agency has been eager to reach.
“These are 12-week therapeutic groups that aim at helping student survivors of sexual violence heal from their trauma,” Durrant explained. “Through the use of therapeutic interventions like art and expressive therapies, students are able to express their hurt and gain positive ways to cope and grow from their experiences.” Although scheduling complications prevented several students from participating in the fall 2013 and spring 2014 sessions, Durrant was impressed by the overall turnout.
“Students appreciate that we are an organization that is apart from VCU and UR and find it comforting that we specialize in sexual violence,” Durrant said of Safe Harbor. She explained that some of her participants have experienced sexual violence on campus, but others were victimized during their childhood or by an acquaintance outside of campus. “Whenever we have had students in group who experienced sexual violence on campus, they have articulated feeling unsure and unsafe on campus, a trauma reaction that is common in survivors,” Durrant said.
Tammi Slovinsky is the assistant director for sexual assault, intimate partner violence and stalking advocacy services at VCU. The grant provides funding for Safe Harbor to facilitate the therapeutic groups for the next two years, and Slovinksy expressed that she hopes to continue partnering with the agency despite uncertainty about future funding.
“They [student participants] find the groups very validating – they know they are not the only people going through it,” Slovinsky said. “They find ways to heal and learn to cope.”
In addition to establishing the support group for students, the grant enabled both universities to each hire a full-time coordinator for prevention and advocacy. VCU used the opportunity to create a Violence Prevention Health Educator position, which focuses on LGBTQ communities. The first staff member to hold this title is Kaylin Tingle, who received her undergraduate degree from VCU and is currently working toward her master’s degree in social work.
“One other person [on campus] deals with LGBTQ issues, but not related to violence,” Tingle said. She had been involved in violence prevention work prior to the grant writing process and described her position as her dream job. “I’m looking forward to more LGBTQ services,” Tingle added, explaining that VCU students’ needs fluctuate. “We know this is happening but folks aren’t talking about it.”
UR used the grant funding to hire Beth Curry as the coordinator for sexual misconduct education and advocacy. Curry said that her 20 years of experience working with college students has made her very aware of the role that alcohol and sexual assault play in campus culture. She is a licensed professional counselor, and for the past seven years she worked as a university counselor at Washington & Lee University.
“In that role I sat with far too many students who were survivors of sexual violence or stalking, and I met with their parents and friends who were desperate to know how to help them,” Curry said. “So I became passionate about decreasing the number of people who are victims by doing what I could in the area of education and prevention.”
These two tasks will be an important part of Curry’s work at UR. “Campuses need ongoing education and awareness efforts in order to decrease our rates of violence,” she said. “This includes ongoing reminders and messages about how to help prevent sexual assault from occurring by learning to intervene as a proactive bystander.”
Curry started a Sexual Assault Prevention Team at UR to provide oversight for these efforts. She also serves as a confidential advocate for survivors on campus, something UR students never had before. “This position will allow me to serve as a confidential resource, to help students understand and navigate their emotions and options should they become a survivor of sexual assault,” Curry said.
Curry looks forward to connecting with students and creating space for them to have a dialogue around the issues of sexual assault and healthy relationships. “I really enjoy working with the college population and I believe it’s important to get students interested and involved in this issue,” she said. “I believe that we can make a difference in terms of cultural change and therefore in our rates of violence.”
Curry said that in addition to providing the support groups, Safe Harbor is another confidential resource for students. “Community partners were a crucial component to receiving the grant,” Curry said. “It’s so important to have resources in the community who have the same goals as we do on campus.”