Sexual assault is an uncomfortable topic. How sexual assault is handled on campus is a difficult issue for students and universities.
A collaborative program between Gonzaga University and Lutheran Community Services Northwest in Spokane takes a unique approach to providing sexual assault advocacy services at the university. Less than two years into the project, initial results are promising.
“We had no idea what the outcomes would be going into it,” said Eric Baldwin, Dean for Student Well Being and Healthy Living at Gonzaga University. “It has been a great resource for our students.”
In the summer of 2015, LCS Northwest started providing a campus victim advocate. Students can meet confidentially with the advocate on campus or at LCS Northwest offices less than a mile from Gonzaga. The service is free and totally voluntary.
If a student talks with a university employee about a sexual assault, federal Title IX rules require the university to report the conversation. The only exception to this requirement is when the student reports a sexual assault to a medical provider or counselor in the Student Health Center, or to a priest or pastor working in their capacity as a university minister.
The LCS Northwest advocate isn’t employed by Gonzaga, so the conversation goes only as far as each student wants. Confidential conversations with the advocate makes it easier to talk about a difficult matter.
“Students can explore options of how do I report it and who do I report it to,” Baldwin said. “A student can be ready when it’s time for a mandatory reporter to know.”
Ligeia DeVleming was the advocate for the 2015-2016 school year. She thought a few students would use her services.
“I was surprised that about 25 people came to talk with me,” DeVleming said. “I didn’t think it was going to be nearly that many students.”
Many of those students are survivors of childhood sexual assault. Coming to college was the first time they were away from perpetrators, who are usually a relative, friend or sibling. It’s often the first time the victim has talked about it.
“Sexual assaults are happening whether people are coming forward or not,” DeVleming said. “So providing a space and a person to talk to helps victims process.”
When DeVleming was promoted to a supervisor position, Kerri Handley became the advocate at Gonzaga in the fall of 2016 for LCS Northwest. Handley has worked with about 10 students. Only females have used the advocacy services so far. These services are available to all students, students’ family and friends, along with university staff.
“We help them understand their choices and options both on and off campus,” Handley said. She provides psycho education so victims know that trauma symptoms, such as panic attacks, sleep disturbances, fear and isolation, are normal.
The advocate also works to validate experiences by believing victims and letting them know it’s not their fault. The goal is to stabilize victims so they can begin healing through counseling. Some have started using LCS Northwest’s counseling services for sexual assault victims.
In addition to the interpersonal work, the advocate position has an educational component. Both DeVleming and Handley have given talks in residence halls and to other student groups, faculty and staff.
There are other services students can tap into. If an assault happens on or off campus, an LCS advocate or volunteer advocate will help them through the physical examination process. This is a service LCS Northwest provides to the entire Spokane community. The advocate also supports students with protection orders by helping them switch residence halls or class schedules if needed.
This collaborative effort started more than two years ago when a student group called Cause a Scene advocated for a confidential victim advocate on the Gonzaga campus. That student advocacy led to tough conversations about sexual assault between Cause a Scene members and administrators. The two groups decided to work together, which led to the partnership between LCS Northwest and Gonzaga. Gonzaga makes a donation to LCS Northwest to cover the cost of the victim advocate.
“When you approach difficult situations with an open heart and mind, you can create an understanding that will put everyone on the same page,” Baldwin said. “In the end, we’re all wanting to get help for people who need it.”