UWRF teaches harassment solutions
December 2, 2011
There are many questions surrounding the sex-abuse scandal that has plagued Penn State. Many of these questions focus on the means and timing of reporting the alleged abuses. While we may never know the answers to many of these questions, and can easily fall into the trap that it could never happen at a place like River Falls; Alice Reilly-Myklebust, the director of Student Health and Counseling Services, says this is a problem that affects our community, even though Penn State may be thousands of miles away.
She also made it very clear that even though UW-River Falls’ reported incidences are smaller than comparable universities, the first step is recognizing that there is a problem with sexual harassment and assault, and that there are resources available to students and staff on the campus of UWRF to help the victims get the help they need.
A new initiative in a joint effort with the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities and Student Health and Counseling Services seeks to ensure that every incoming student is educated on what sexual harassment and assault is through the Step-Up program. It also informs students on what should be done if you think you have been sexually harassed and/or assaulted. The Step-Up program is a new challenge that encourages bystanders to intervene and help the victim. The initiative came as a result of a survey conducted last fall by Arizona State University in which most people responded that they “want to do the right thing, but they just don’t know how.” Since then, UWRF has increased the Step-Up training into areas such as orientation and for student employees to help students “see the problem and be the change.” Over 85 per- cent of UWRF students believe that it is their responsibility to intervene in a problematic situation, according to data conducted by the Step-Up initiative.
Thomas Pedersen, the assistant director in the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities said that, “the goal every year is that every new student be given concrete information to know what to do and how to report it.” He went on to say that, “any allegation, we investigate; we can meet with the victim, the witness(es) and then with the alleged abuser.”
Even though the information is kept confidential and there are places, such as the counseling center to go on campus, Pedersen still has not seen as many people come forward, even with the increased education and attention that has been given. “We just don’t know, is it stopping or are people just not reporting? Either way, it doesn’t change the fact that it still happens,” said Pedersen. “And if we look at national surveys, sexual harassment happens every week.”
While reporting an incident is the right thing to do and the main reason why students intervene; in the wake of the Penn State scandal and any other incident that goes unreported, it can often be easy to accuse the witness and/or the victim and wonder how they could keep silent for so long. Pedersen noted that more often than not, incidents go unreported because most people simply do not want to get involved or get someone into trouble. However, both Pedersen and Reilly-Myklebust emphasized that the main reason these incidents are not reported is that more often than not, the alleged perpetrator is someone the victim knows. It is not, as the stereotype suggests, someone who would “jump out of the bushes” in a random act of violence. Since the victim could see the perpetrator on an everyday basis, there is often fear or retribution if something is said or done.
In the executive summary of the Campus Climate survey that was released in April 2010, out of the 2,290 respondents, which is comprised of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, academic staff and classified staff, 169, or 7 percent, believed that they had been touched in a sexual manner that made them feel uncomfortable or fearful while at UWRF.
Transgender respondents, women, bisexual respondents, heterosexual respondents, and people with learning disabilities were more likely than other groups to believe that they had been sexually assaulted and most of the respondents who believed that they had been sexually assaulted were UWRF students (39 people), female (46 people), heterosexual (43 people), and white (45 people). The alleged perpetrators of the perceived sexual assaults against students were most often other students (26), strangers (9), acquaintances (8), or friends (8).
While these numbers are slightly lower than other comparable universities, Gretchen Link, a senior counselor at UWRF believes that the best way to stop sexual abuse is through the bond of the campus community. “There is strength in community and strength in groups that work together. By putting the victim first, they know something will be done,” said Link. “It is important to remind people of our values and culture and that there are healthy ways to intervene. You can call the police and have positive affects. This behavior will not be tolerated.”