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Safety, support for student victims of sexual assault stressed at faculty presentation

By MICHAEL ANDREI

Published February 10, 2017

“The most important thing is to believe that person. Don’t try to question them or investigate the report — be an active listener.”
Joshua Sticht, deputy chief
University Police

In an open question-and-answer session with faculty on Tuesday, UB administrators responsible for sexual assault prevention and response emphasized that safety and support are paramount for students who approach a faculty member to say they have been sexually assaulted.

The discussion was part of “Campus Sexual Assault: What Faculty Need to Know,” a seminar that took place in Davis Hall on the North Campus.

The 90-minute session touched on a wide range of topics related to sexual assault, including available resources and workshops, confidentiality, legal issues, sexting and sexual extortion, and appropriate responses to victims of sexual violence.

“My question is a basic one,” said Paschalis Alexandridis, UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “What do I tell a student who comes to me to report a sexual assault allegation?”

“The most important thing is to believe that person,” said Joshua B. Sticht, deputy chief of University Police. “Don’t try to question them or investigate the report — be an active listener. Take the details and explain in the most non-judgmental way you can what their next options are.”

Sticht added that, in cases where a faculty member or administrator may even unintentionally ask an accusatory question, a student may be prompted to step back and become unwilling to move forward.

Several follow-up questions were offered by faculty members — who stated they are not in a confidential campus resource or security role — regarding how they should respond to a student report of a sexual assault.

Anna Sotelo-Peryea, assistant director and violence prevention coordinator for UB Wellness Education Services, responded: “If you are asked by a student to keep something completely confidential, you, as faculty, can direct the student to one of the resources that are appropriate for that.

“Because of my role, I often work together with students to file their report in a way that is confidential and which meets their needs, without adding any additional pressure to the situation.

“I follow the student’s willingness to make the decision that is right for them,” Sotelo-Peryea said. “They can keep the report anonymous.”

Sticht added that filing an anonymous report online is often a helpful and effective step.

“Using that, we can publish a timely warning, for example, to get the information out to the public,” he said. “We can and have made arrests that way, to remove the bad actor from the campus community. Anonymous reports can make a big difference.”

A sexual assault or an incident of an unwanted sexual experience also can be reported to the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). EDI investigates reports of discrimination and harassment, but also can assist with providing guidance to faculty who receive sexual assault disclosures and information to students about reporting and support services.

One question that faculty often have is whether they are required to report a sexual assault disclosure, including the reporting student’s identity. Under federal law, reporting obligations are different for faculty who are responsible for student programs, such as administrators. “If you are a department chair you are mandated to report an allegation,” said Sharon Nolan-Weiss, UB EDI director.

“But students often do not want their names disclosed, so confidentiality is almost always an issue and it remains foremost for us. It is something we are always aware of.” Nolan-Weiss clarified that faculty can report a situation to EDI or University Police without identifying the name of the student.

Amanda Nickerson, director of UB’s Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention, raised the issue of sexual assault among students who know each other.

“Assault by a friend raises an additional set of challenges,” she said. “Those who are victimized are not always willing to talk about it. What is a course of action there?”

“”We will do whatever we can to meet the victim in a place where they will be comfortable to disclose what happened,” Sticht said. “It can be a place of their choosing, often off-campus.

“If we can have that conversation, we can figure out if there is something there and if there are grounds for other actions — if the person wants to pursue campus charges or criminal charges. Or if the person they have identified is known to us as a repeat offender who may represent an immediate threat to other students.”

“In situations such as that, we don’t have to wait to start the support process,” noted Elizabeth Lidano, director of Judicial Affairs and Student Advocacy.

“If a person accused of an assault is charged, the campus conduct process can move forward — frequently that means a campus suspension. Title IX requires us to set a timetable on this, so the suspension holds until we can decide what the appropriate course of action would be.”

Judith Olin, clinical assistant professor in the School of Law, told the group that criminal cases of sexual assault involving acquaintances can be difficult to adjudicate.

“As a former sex crimes prosecutor, I have seen juries become unpredictable when a victim doesn’t recall how much she drank or doesn’t recall saying ‘no,’” Olin said. “If a victim drinks too much, that doesn’t mean she asked to be assaulted.”

Sotelo-Peryea noted UB’s campus affirmative consent policy, which serves to remove such issues in understanding the nature of sexual assault and the role of alcohol in facilitating sexual assault.  

She added, “Our amnesty policy, also, helps to alleviate some of the concerns a student may have about coming forward if they’ve been drinking or using drugs at the time they were violated.”

Training and education benefits UB because sexual assault prevention needs to be everyone’s responsibility, Sotelo-Peryea said. “Our rates of instances of sexual violence are lower than other colleges and universities nationally.

“We lead the nation in critical processes and programing,” she said. “Our most recent National College Health Assessment showed an increase in students receiving sexual assault and relationship violence prevention information at 73 percent, up from our baseline of 40 percent in 2007. That’s 21,960 students.”

Sotelo-Peryea said this has brought about a downward shift in the level of sexual assault violence experiences at UB.

“The last eight years have really brought about improvements in our prevention and response system together with a change in campus culture, and we remain committed to continuous improvement in partnerships across campus and in the community.”