Worcester State joins Culture of Respect Collective to address sexual violence

August 14, 2023
By: Rebecca Cross

Worcester State is undertaking an ambitious multiyear effort to prevent sexual violence on campus. In January, the university joined a group of 13 colleges and universities across North America for the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) Culture of Respect Collective, an initiative that guides institutions through an extensive self-assessment that is intended to lead to programmatic and policy changes to create a safer campus. Participation in the collective is supported by a state grant.

Led by the university’s Title IX Office, the effort reflects the university’s commitment to support survivors of sexual violence and prevent violence. At least 26.4% of female, 6.8% of male, and 23% of trans/nonbinary college students will experience some type of sexual violence, according to RAINN. The numbers are likely higher because not all survivors report an assault. According to the American Psychological Association, 34% of college students who experience sexual assault drop out of college.

“The ultimate goal is to support our community members who have been impacted by sexual violence and enhance prevention efforts to create the safest community possible and help our students be more successful,” said Jennifer Quinn, assistant dean of Student Affairs and Title IX coordinator

The results of Worcester State’s assessment, shared with university this summer, showed that the university has a solid foundation to make improvements across the six categories of measurement: survivor support, clear policies, multi-tiered education, public disclosure, schoolwide mobilization, and ongoing self-assessment. Worcester State is strongest in survivor support and clear policies, and needs the most support in multi-tiered education, schoolwide mobilization, and ongoing self-assessment. The next step for Worcester State will be to work with the Culture of Respect consultant to set goals and develop a plan to implement them. At the end of two years, the university will redo the assessment to track progress and change.

“It’s nice to have that outside lens,” said Quinn. “This program will show us how to pull the campus together and collaborate across campus to best support our students.”

Change at Worcester State starts with increased awareness throughout the campus community. “We want people across campus to understand how sexual misconduct impacts our campus,” said Sarah Valois, assistant director of Counseling Services and sexual violence response and prevention coordinator. “When sexual violence occurs, it impacts many parts of someone’s life; their mental health, physical health, social and intimate relationships, and academic success. Oftentimes friends and social groups get disrupted, which impacts everyone involved. The result is increased conflict, distrust, and feelings of being unsafe.”

In May, Culture of Respect Program Coordinator Jessica Henault visited Worcester State’s campus and held listening sessions with staff, faculty, and students. She also presented the goals of the university’s involvement in the collective to President Barry M. Maloney and his cabinet and began the self-assessment process with the newly developed Sexual Misconduct Response Team (SMRT).

The SMRT committee is made up of 15 staff and faculty appointed by the president. The committee is working to evaluate and improve campus response, policies, and protocols of sexual and gender-based misconduct and discrimination. Because the members of the committee represent different departments, they are then able to more effectively advocate for change within their own departments.

William Marrier, assistant director of university police, serves on the SMRT committee and is working to improve survivor services within the university police force. “A job in law enforcement is about helping and guiding survivors,” he said. “It’s imperative that we have more explanation for survivors about what happens from here and what they should expect.”

Marrier is enthusiastic about the work Valois and Don Brickman, assistant director and captain for emergency management and training, are doing on policies to outline important response measures that can be overlooked in the force. “It’s really going to help survivors, the police force, and the campus community,” he said.

Alison Park, assistant director of the LGBTQIA+ Center and deputy Title IX coordinator, joined the committee as part of her commitment to furthering inclusivity at Worcester State. “I believe taking steps in expanding education, awareness, and collaborating  with other departments at Worcester State University is crucial to benefiting our campus climate for everyone, especially our students,” she said.

Worcester State already offers a number of resources. The Sexual Assault and Violence Education (SAVE) program and the SAVE Task Force provide information and education about sexual and relational violence, survivor support, and campus prevention initiatives. Students have been trained to educate their peers. Quinn and Valois have started collaborating with Employee Services to set up universal training across campus for faculty and staff that is consistent and regular. The university is developing a campus climate survey to measure what resources students are aware of and using, whether they have experienced sexual violence, and how safe students feel on campus.

With the results of the self-assessment, the SMRT committee is developing goals and action items and an implementation plan. Valois says the work will be ongoing. Even after the two-year program is completed, the SMRT committee will continue to work to improve the university’s response and prevention resources.

According to Henault, most higher education institutions have strong resources in place to respond to violence, but they are just starting to learn how to prevent it. Prevention is a priority for Worcester State. Valois and Quinn are hoping that Worcester State’s participation in this program will lead to further efforts to prevent sexual violence. “There are so many good evidence-based programs out there, but we don’t have access to these evidence-based programs or resources at this time,” Quinn said. “Hopefully the implementation plan will assist us in gaining access to more resources.

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