RED ZONE: Connecting students with sexual violence resources

There are a number of resources on UAA’s campus for students who experience sexual assault and harassment, domestic violence and other sexual misconduct, but sometimes it is difficult to connect students with them.

Hilary Huffman is an anthropology student whose master’s thesis is focused on examining students’ needs and finding out how to better provide the appropriate services.

Anthropology student Hilary Huffman focuses her work on those affected by sexual misconduct and sexual assault for her master’s thesis. Photo credit: Young Kim

Huffman said that there is a difference between students that are either disclosing their experiences or actually reporting them to officials, either the university or police.

In a report conducted by Brad Myrstol and Lindsey Blumenstein of UAA, data was collected from the University of Alaska Campus Climate Survey in 2016. The report showed that the rate of student disclosure was higher than the rate of student reports, where “[d]isclosure includes all the victims’ discussions with others, but reports only includes the victims’ discussions with officials such as university or law enforcement representatives.”

According to the report, students were more likely to disclose to a friend (45.3 percent for sexual misconduct and 28.0 percent for sexual assault) than they were to disclose to faculty or staff (6.7 percent and 0.4 percent) or sexual assault advocates on campus (0.5 percent and 0.4 percent).

Among the organizations that students report to, the least are the university police and other formal services, such as Title IX.

“We know from research done on a national scale and, more recently, through the Campus Climate Survey… students experience sexual violence on our campus at about a rate of 1 in 10 during the time that they’re a student,” Huffman said. “[For] a lot of the services to respond, the disclosing rate is lower. So the lowest is the police department, Title IX, those agencies that can respond and have remedial action.”

Huffman’s goal is to figure out how to bridge these gaps that will help get students within UAA and its satellite campuses with the right resources and ensure that they are aware of their options.

“The premise of the project is that we see these really high rates of sexual violence and lower rates of disclosing to support agencies. We see this disconnect and this project is aimed at looking at that disconnect, being able to describe what it looks like, why it’s there and then make recommendations,” Huffman said. “Part of it then will also be disseminating this information back to students. ‘Hey, these are your resources, this is who’s out there.’”

Georgia DeKeyser, director of the UAA Student Health and Counseling Center, said that one of the biggest challenges lies in a student trying to decide what to do.

“I think the biggest challenge is for people to come forward. Oftentimes, there might be a question in their mind of ‘Would this be helpful? Do I really want to share this information with somebody else? If I do share it, how will it help me?’” DeKeyser said. “It’s a very private matter. It’s difficult to talk about these things.”

The SHCC discusses options with a student depending on what he or she wants to do, while ultimately making sure that the student is safe. This may range from going to the police or finding time to heal.

“We try to be a safe place for students who have gone through something like this,” DeKeyser said. “We try to help people connect with other resources… all the while helping them connect with their own inner resources, their own strengths and their own support systems.”

Standing Together Against Rape has an office located next door to SHCC and Sam (last name not disclosed due to STAR policy), a direct services advocate, said that some resources can be difficult to reach for students.

The state of Alaska provides funds for three agencies, STAR, Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis and Victims for Justice, which can be used towards people who need housing, childcare, counseling and other services. Although there are many agencies for people to reach out to, some services and resources are not easily accessed.

“There are resources that are available in town that I think — unless somebody was referred to them — they may not know about,” Sam said. “And there’s some that you can only access through another agency… The way that we assist people is going to look different for everyone, including the way that we use those funds and they don’t have to report to the police in order to use those.”

Sam said that there is a lack of discussion about sexual violence.

“The way I feel about it is if people won’t talk about something, it’s really hard to fix it. We give a fair amount of permission for people to talk about other violent crimes or other things that are difficult in their lives,” Sam said. “Like if a parent passed away, we give them permission to grieve and talk about that as a society… But we really don’t give permission as a society for people to talk about sexual harms.”

Starting a conversation could be helpful in making sure that students are getting the help and support that they need.

“If that barrier starts to get broken down a little more, I think it’ll be easier for agencies to reach out to people because there won’t be as much of a stigma with those people reaching back,” Sam said.

Huffman said that part of the reason why she decided to do this project was because she had seen her own friends experience various forms of sexual violence while in school for her undergraduate degree. Then she began working with STAR after enrolling at UAA.

“When I came to do my master’s program at UAA, one of the things I wanted to do was a practicum, so I decided to do that practicum with [STAR]. After working with them for a couple of years I decided to do this project in response to seeing how under-utilized different agencies and knowing that the rates of sexual violence were so high,” Huffman said.

To collect information and data, Huffman is speaking to current and former students who are willing to share their stories. She said that confidentiality and comfort are also essential to the interview.

“I’m looking for individuals who self-identify that they’ve experienced any form of sexual violence while a UAA student… We would meet in an innocuous location and ask them questions — not about the experience — and then asking about ‘Did you or did you not seek services or report? Why not?’” Huffman said. “I think it’s really important that they understand that I don’t have a certain position that you should do this or this.”

Students’ voices are important to Huffman and she hopes to gain the feedback and information needed to better serve agencies and the students they help.

“My goal is really just to reach students and help them understand that they have a voice, that their voice is wanted,” Huffman said.

Huffman is still collecting data for the study and welcomes people to contact her. If interested, her email is [email protected]