Few know what lies behind the walls of McKee House. Students pass the building every day, chatting with friends or texting on high-tech phones. Walking along University Terrace, their eyes never stop on the small white edifice washed out by a sea of red brick buildings.
Most people have no reason to care about the building across the street from Ellis Hall or the lives that are changed inside every day. To most, it’s just office space, but, for survivors of sexual violence, relationship violence and stalking, McKee House is a home they will never forget.
Since its formal start in September 2010, the Survivor Advocacy Program has occupied the basement of McKee House with resources and funding provided by a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women.
In 2009, the office awarded more than $10 million in campus grants to help schools create programs that address sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking, and Ohio University was one of 32 colleges to receive a grant that same year.
Before the program, victims of sexual assault, dating or domestic violence and stalking could visit a number of places on campus for help. Student health services, psychological services and law enforcement all existed, but a sole office exclusively dedicated to addressing those issues was lacking.
The one missing piece of the puzzle was a person prepared to guide victims through the most wrenching experience of their lives. Because of the Survivor Advocacy Program, they now have a place to go at OU to seek comfort, not face judgment and learn about the resources available to help on campus.
“It’s so nice for these areas now that they don’t have to be the expert in everything,” says Lindsey Daniels, program coordinator for the Survivor Advocacy Program. “Let us be the expert in how to respond and connect people to the resources.”
From the minute a person calls the 24/7 hotline or walks into the office, Daniels and 18 peer advocates trained in crisis intervention are ready to help. No appointment is necessary.
Peer advocates can also be present with survivors through any medical and legal process, including exams, police interviews or judiciary hearings.
If a survivor is confronted by his or her attacker in a class or dorm room, the program can also work with other departments on campus to provide housing and academic accommodations that better suit the well-being of the survivor.
With 19 internal campus and community partners, including the Ohio University Police Department, O’Bleness Memorial Hospital and My Sister’s Place, the Survivor Advocacy Program is finally connecting those dots to help survivors choose their own paths to recovery.
“We can talk about what options are on the table, but we are not the expert in that survivor’s situation,” Daniels says. “Ultimately where it goes is up to her or him, and they can be assured that the advocate is somebody who supports that choice unconditionally.”
Last spring, an increase of sexual assaults in the Mill Street area caught the attention of the Athens media and law enforcement. In April alone, a female student was raped at knifepoint, a woman was the victim of a sexual imposition and another reported she was sexually assaulted in an apartment near campus. By September 2011, two different instances of rape have already been reported to OUPD.
With a slew of sex attacks occurring across campus, the Survivor Advocacy Program is needed now more then ever to help combat sexual violence at OU. Although the program is dedicated to fighting all instances of sexual assault, sometimes an even bigger issue is the victims’ voices that go unheard.
“Often there’s no witnesses to these assaults, and victims fear that they won’t be believed if they report,” says Christine Gidycz, a psychology professor and director of clinical training at OU. “But sometimes, even when they are believed, it’s hard to document a case, so it can be re-traumatizing to come forward.”
Research from Gidycz’s Laboratory for the Study and Prevention of Sexual Assault shows that far more sexual assaults take place on campus than are reported. For more than 20 years, with help from graduate students, she has been performing large-scale survey studies on campus, measuring female students’ experiences of sexual assault.
Of 430 undergraduate women surveyed between fall 2008 and fall 2010 in a project headed by Gidycz’s graduate student Megan Murphy, 21 reported experiencing rape, 15 reported experiencing unwanted sexual coercion, 12 reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact and 12 reported experiencing attempted rape over one 10-week academic quarter.
If multiplied over three quarters, that would mean approximately 63 instances of rape, 45 instances of sexual coercion and 36 instances of both unwanted sexual contact and attempted rape occurred in one year at OU. Yet only 15 forcible sex offenses and nine forcible rapes took place on and adjacent to university property in Athens in 2010, according to the 2011 Clery Report from OUPD.
Driven by such low reporting, the OU Women’s Center, led by founding director Susanne Dietzel, wrote an application for a campus grant program from the Office of Violence Against Women.
Although the purpose of each program is the same, every school might approach the problems unique to their campus and community differently. That focus could be on changing the judicial system, prevention education or outreach to men. For OU, it’s having an advocate for survivors.
“We didn’t really have a support person for victims and survivors,” Dietzel says. “We wanted just to have one very visible person who could stand up and say, ‘I am in charge. I will come to you.’”
Victims who seek help through the Survivor Advocacy Program are able to report sexual assaults confidentially, which helps to eliminate the shame and guilt associated with reporting.
Unlike medical professionals, police officers or university employees, peer advocates are not obligated to report sexual assaults or even document a victim’s real name. The program’s main concern is providing survivors with a safe place to tell their stories, allowing them the chance to heal instead of being consumed by silent fear.
Above all else, a peer advocate is a person who must demonstrate empathy and respect when trying to get victims of sexual violence, relationship violence and stalking to open up about their trauma.
“It doesn’t matter what you were wearing, what you were drinking, who you were with or if you were out late at night,” says junior Jeana Davis, who began working as a peer advocate this fall. “You are a survivor of this, and it was never your fault.”
Although the program’s peer advocates are mainly undergraduate students, they are not unprepared to handle situations of violence. Each advocate must take a four-credit class, the equivalent of 40 hours of training, in the spring. Starting in the fall of the next academic year, they volunteer five hours a week to office work and community programming.
Davis, who was inspired to become a peer advocate after working with the sexual assault prevention club, says the job has changed her life for the better.
“When you deal with people that have been through these experiences, it gives you a new perspective on your own problems,” Davis says. “It’s very touching to work with these survivors.”
The program is also dedicated to fostering awareness in the Athens community about sexual violence, relationship violence and stalking. In the past, peers have planned educational programs, including presentations on “how to help a friend” suffering from abuse and speaking events with experts from organizations like Men Can Stop Rape.
Such programming will not eradicate all instances of violence on campus, but they are a definite starting point in getting the community involved to stop the cycle of stereotypes perpetuated about victims and the acts against them.
As each grant from the Office of Violence Against Women lasts for a three-year period, the grant that created the Survivor Advocacy Program at OU will expire in November 2012. The Women’s Center plans to reapply for a new grant in the winter, but Dietzel is also working to get the university involved in funding the program.
Though funding may be uncertain, the program has clearly proved itself a vital resource on campus. Since its implementation, the Survivor Advocacy Program has been able to assist a little more than 49 clients and has fielded hundreds of calls to the hotline.
It’s hard to even imagine where all of those victims would be today without the Survivor Advocacy Program in place at OU.
“I’ve had people ask what happened before this program existed. I have heard people say I wish you had been here when it happened to me,” says Daniels as she ponders where all the calls and survivors seeking help went before the program.
“Above and beyond what we do in terms of education, we make a difference for those individuals and that’s why this program is so important.”
The Survivor Advocacy Program. McKee House. 44 University Terrace. Office open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. On-call after 5 p.m. and on weekends. 740-597-7233.