Pitt Office Ramps Up Efforts to Prevent Sexual Violence

Pitt’s recently formed Sexual Violence Prevention and Education Office continues its efforts this week to educate the community about what constitutes sexual assault, relationship violence and harassment—and what to do if you witness it.

Beginning this week, their new “Shattering the Statistics” series launches on Oct. 15, with a virtual panel of experts discussing trends related to sexual assault and relationship abuse. The Oct. 22 session will focus on the new federal Title IX regulations mandated in August by the U.S. Department of Education.

“The second session was designed to help inform our community about the new Title IX regulations and how their application, through our interim Title IX Policy, will work in real situations,” said Katie Pope, associate vice chancellor for civil rights and Title IX at Pitt.

Pope said one of the biggest changes is that the new regulations require a formal investigation outcome to be determined by an in-person hearing that allows advisors for either party to ask questions of each other. Additionally, there are new requirements for the language used in the documents related to an investigation.

Attendees at “Unpacking the New Title IX Regulations” will hear from Pope, Professor of Law Deborah Brake and a representative from Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, among others.

A woman in a black topCarrie Benson, who is the prevention and education coordinator for the new education office, has been busy the past 10 months, since it was established by Chancellor Patrick Gallagher as part of his community-driven response to prevent sexual misconduct on campus. The new series is just one of many efforts the office is leading.

Bystander intervention

One key piece of the training for the Pitt community involves what to do as a bystander if you witness unacceptable behavior.

“It’s all about setting standards for our culture,” said Benson. “If someone tells a sexist joke, for example, we provide skills on how to interrupt that behavior.”

Benson said people may hesitate to report such behavior if it involves a supervisor or a student leader. Power dynamics can make it difficult to interrupt a situation. Or people may think “Perhaps there is someone more qualified than me to intervene,” she said. 

Part of Pitt’s bystander training includes discussions about overcoming these barriers. One suggestion is to ask someone to join you by saying, “Let’s go together and report on what we just saw.”

With a $15,000 grant from It’s On Us, Benson’s office has collaborated with Student Health Service and Student Affairs’ marketing office to launch a “My Voice Has Power” bystander campaign with teal-colored posters popping up on social media, using the hashtag #TurnTeal. Each poster lists a different strategy for supporting the movement to end sexual assault and harassment—from listening to an assault survivor to walking a friend safely home if they had a lot to drink at a party.

“We want to normalize standing up on Pitt’s campus,” said Benson. “The norm is that you intervene.”

More peer educators

Six additional peer educators have also been added to the Sexual Assault Facilitation and Education (SAFE) Program. Peer educators fan out across campus and organize discussion-based workshops that cover sexual assault awareness, relationship violence, issues of consent, interpersonal communication and bystander intervention training.

A woman in a green jacket with a white shirtOne of the educators, Pitt senior Aarti Patel, had volunteered while in high school for an organization that supports survivors of sexual assault. She said that experience opened her eyes to the importance of sexual violence prevention efforts, especially on a college campus.

“I think college students are often unaware of the brevity of sexual harassment,” said Patel, who is majoring in neuroscience and anthropology. “There are so many phrases or scenes that are so common that students sometimes don’t recognize it as sexual harassment.” She said that she brings real-life scenarios up for discussion at the workshops and approaches each session as a learning moment.

The SAFE program is sponsored by the Sexual Violence Prevention and Education Office and the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education (SHARE) Office within the University Counseling Center

Survivor’s Support Network

Another series of new workshops is taking place this fall, explaining the new Survivor’s Support Network. Students came to Benson with the idea to develop a program: After an attendee goes to two workshops, they receive an email moniker designating them as part of the network, as well as a printable certificate that can be displayed in their workspace. The idea is to create a cadre of trained and caring leaders—students, faculty and staff members—who know how to support survivors.

“We know people can feel isolated after experiencing sexual violence,” said Benson. “This way, they can reach out for support and be met with thoughtful responses.”

Other efforts by Benson’s office and campus partners include mini It’s on Us workshops that include an art project, specialized training for members of fraternity and sorority organizations, and SETPoint Self-Empowerment training.

There are two upcoming SETPoint sessions. One called “Foundations of Respect, Confidence and Empowerment,” will take place Oct. 17 and 18. The other, “Empowerment Self Defense Training,” is on Oct. 21.

The overall message is two-fold: Recognizing problematic behavior and knowing how to respond.

Peer educator Patel says the workshops with students can be eye-opening. One case in point was when a male student approached her after one session and asked if he could talk to her.

“He expressed his feelings of guilt and shame and I actively listened to him and reassured him,” she said. “In even a small conversation, I had the opportunity to shift someone’s perspective from anguish to hope.”