Sharon Nolan-Weiss

Published October 30, 2014 This content is archived.

Sharon Nolan-Weiss.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault is a significant concern to students and their families, and there is an ongoing national spotlight on this issue.  

UB has assembled a committee to review university policies, procedures, and educational and training initiatives. The Campus Sexual Assault Working Group, formed earlier this year, is a presidential-level committee charged with assessing other opportunities for improving sexual assault prevention efforts.  

Sharon Nolan-Weiss, director of UB’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and Title IX coordinator, is a member of the committee and is helping to lead many of these efforts. She sat down with the UB Reporter to discuss the issue and UB’s approach to it.

Is UB a safe environment for students?

SNW: Yes. While no area is 100 percent crime-free, universities in general are safer places than their surrounding townships and communities, and UB is no exception. UB’s crime statistics for the past three years show no cases of murder or manslaughter, only 12 cases of aggravated assault on campus and only 10 robberies. Given the fact that UB is host to more than 40,000 students and employees each year, we can say that these percentages are extremely low.

With that said, one area where we have to be extremely vigilant is the prevention of student sexual assaults. Over the past three years, there have been 23 reported forcible sexual assaults; 17 of these occurred in residence halls. While the reported numbers are still low percentages compared to the overall number of UB students, we need to be concerned because the profile of college sexual assault is unique to college campuses and is different from what is generally thought of as “sexual assault” in our larger culture. We need to understand that sexual assault is generally underreported and that these numbers likely do not reflect the full extent of sexual assault on campus. These are generally not “stranger assaults”:  between 85 and 90 percent of sexual assault victims know the perpetrator of the sexual assault. All campus environments carry risk factors for student-on-student sexual assaults and UB has been actively employing training, educational programs, bystander awareness and effective response mechanisms to promote the safety of our students.

What does UB do to protect and assist students, faculty and staff?

SNW: UB has a well-trained judicial affairs office and a well-trained police department that are knowledgeable about student issues and have trauma-informed training. We have great people who care and who are making considerable efforts to handle cases correctly and message the right way. We have a great cross-functional team that interfaces well. We have been doing things well, and we can always be doing more.

UB also has Sexual Harassment Information Advisors in each unit — unit-level contacts who may be more familiar to a person within a unit and are well-trained and well-versed in the policies, regulations and procedures. The Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion provided training to our Sexual Harassment Information Advisors to increase their awareness of the issue.

The UB Personal Safety Committee, founded in 1991, examines campus-wide safety and security issues. It meets every month to review campus safety and security issues, and to make recommendations to university leadership. The meetings are open and all members of the university community are encouraged to speak with their representatives or address the committee directly with their safety concerns.  Additionally, UB’s Violence Prevention Team, a subcommittee of the Personal Safety Committee, has been in place for several years and focuses specifically on developing and implementing strategies for campus sexual assault prevention.

The university recently formed the Campus Sexual Assault Working Group, a presidential-level committee charged with assessing other opportunities for improving sexual assault prevention efforts.  

UB Wellness Education Services provides a number of training programs, outreach and awareness campaigns to combat campus sexual assault and to support survivors. Key among these are bystander-intervention training programs.  Freshmen often are targeted at universities. While most people want to do the right thing, they may not know that it is acceptable to intervene or how to intervene. We want to encourage to people to do the right thing in those situations and give them the tools to know how to safely intervene. If you see someone is incapacitated —they may have been drinking — or someone takes pictures of someone in a state of undress, you know it’s wrong — go against groupthink. Be a Bull, don’t be a sheep. Have the courage to go against groupthink and be proud that you intervened.

Can you tell us about new awareness and prevention campaigns?

SNW: For many years, UB has had prevention and awareness programs, policies and practices in place to deal with complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence, and we have adjusted them over time to make them more effective and assure that they comport with applicable laws, regulations and agency guidance.

The White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign promotes both sexual assault awareness and bystander intervention by interfacing directly with university student associations to have students take the “It’s On Us” pledge to combat sexual assault.  White House representatives have invited UB Student Association representatives to participate in a conference call with other university student associations to discuss implementing the campaigns on campuses. Here at UB, Minahil Khan, the student representative to the UB Council and Student Association senator, is working with UB’s chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) to promote an “It’s On Us” awareness week in mid-November 2014.  The awareness week will include student tabling to promote awareness and have students sign the “It’s On Us” pledge, a self-defense workshop and a Title IX awareness workshop. We also plan to give students the opportunity to sign up to participate in focus group sessions to discuss sexual assault at UB and solicit their thoughts on how the university can continue to improve in its efforts moving forward. 

Awareness and prevention programming and events are held throughout the year, and students who are interested in this subject can find a wealth of information and assistance on UB's websites. UB’s outreach activities have included advertisements and articles in both the student and UB newspapers, and by email via the student listserv asking members of the university community to suggest ways the sexual harassment and sexual assaults procedures and policies can be improved.

Other awareness and prevention programming includes:

  • “Haven,” an online learning program that addresses sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking in an effort to engage and empower students to create safe, healthy campus environments.  “Haven” is mandatory for all incoming domestic undergraduate and transfer students, and is also offered to all incoming professional and graduate students.
  • “Bystander Intervention,” offered monthly during the academic year and additionally by request. This pro-social behavior and bystander intervention training raises awareness of helping behaviors, increases motivation to help and assists students in developing skills and confidence when responding to problematic situations to ensure the safety and well-being of themselves and others.
  • The UB Men’s Group is a nationally recognized, award-winning, peer-led group of men who provides training, presentations and awareness-raising events with a focus on cultivating men as allies in preventing sexual violence.
  • UB provides training at student orientations and for faculty and staff, as well as other student trainings. For example, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has mandated training for all of its faculty, staff, teaching assistants and graduate assistants on how to handle reports of sexual harassment and assault — students may feel comfortable approaching a faculty member on a sexual assault or harassment issue. The Teaching and Learning Center is including EDI as a presenter to train teaching assistants and graduate assistants to sensitize them to the issue.

Has the level of awareness at UB increased?

SNW: I feel the level of awareness of this issue has increased on a national level because of media coverage, the White House Task Force and proposed congressional legislation. This increase in focus has really become pronounced over the past two years. We are finding that students and their parents already come to campus understanding on some level that sexual assault may be an issue for college students. UB has focused on sexual assault prevention and response since 2007, when our Wellness Education Services team began addressing campus sexual assault from a public health perspective, employing a range of programming and education. I believe the increased awareness does benefit UB because sexual assault prevention needs to be everyone’s responsibility. A bystander who understands the issue may be in a position where he or she can help someone who is in a dangerous situation, or where he or she can provide the necessary support to encourage a friend to report an assault that occurred. Victims of sexual assault tend to blame themselves and question whether they were at fault for the assault. Publicizing this as a national issue can help a sexual assault victim recognize that what happened was not his or her fault, and that the victim is not alone.

On the other hand, one concern I have is that media coverage of schools that did not handle sexual assault situations well might have a chilling effect on victims who might fear that universities generally want to “sweep sexual assault under the rug,” or who might fear that they will be subjected to a humiliating, blaming process if they choose to report. UB has worked hard to message to survivors of sexual assault that they will not be blamed for what has happened, and has developed a Confidentiality and Reporting Protocol to help survivors understand how they can get help while still maintaining control over the steps taken in response.

How is UB responding to the White House Task Force guidance, and SUNY and the governor’s call to action?

SNW: We care that the government is focusing on this very important issue — a sexual assault survivor can look at the White House Task Force report and see that they are not to blame, not alone, and this can allow others who have not experienced sexual assault understand the context. It helps change the culture.

Many of the actions and recommendations offered in the White House report are already in place or in development at UB. For example, the UB-developed Confidentiality and Reporting Protocol has been presented by SUNY legal counsel as a model for SUNY campuses. It enables survivors to understand how information they provide will be acted on, know the resources they can consult that are completely confidential, and get the information and support they need regardless of whether they would like to move forward with a report of sexual assault.

UB is looking forward to any additional guidance or assistance that SUNY can provide in helping all of its schools address this issue. SUNY Counsel’s office — in particular, Andrea Stagg, Joseph Storch and Jim Jarvis — have been invaluable in communicating with us in order to provide updates on mandated action, recommendations for programming, policy guidance and other assistance. SUNY Counsel also shares other schools’ programming and strategies so that we can benefit from what others have developed. 

I do feel that UB will be well positioned to implement whatever additional actions or recommendations SUNY develops. We have a tremendous amount of strength in dedicated, professional and highly competent campus partners. Wellness Education Services, University Police, the Office of Judicial Affairs and our Violence Prevention Team have all been tremendous in this area and our offices are in frequent communication with each other. University Communications also has been a valuable partner in helping us message and raise awareness of this issue.