As part of its latest initiative to ensure a safe campus, Franciscan University of Steubenville has expanded its office of Campus Safety and Compliance to include two confidential advocates, located in 1410 Assisi Heights, who are able to assist not only students but faculty and staff as well with Title IX concerns.
In today’s world, sexual assault and harassment are unfortunate facts of life. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, which is the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the United States, one in six women and one in 33 men experience sexual assault at some point during their lives.
Despite encouragement to speak out, many survivors feel guilty or to blame, which prevents many from receiving help. Since many staff and faculty members of schools are required by law to report any incidents of harassment, it can be difficult for students to find someone in which to confide.
An advocate’s job is to provide free and confidential support and assistance both for persons who have experienced discrimination, harassment, sexual assault or sexual misconduct — formally known as complainants — and for those individuals alleged to have perpetrated such acts — respondents.
“(This program) came about … so that if there is a policy violation or someone is being accused of a policy violation, that person has automatic support,” advocate Eileen Spencer said.
Whether by simply listening, referring a client to Franciscan’s counseling services, informing him or her of possible next steps or even accompanying complainants to the emergency room for evidence collection, advocates are here to help in any way they can. The service is entirely voluntary. If a student, staff member or faculty member decides at any point to stop working with the advocates, the individual’s decision will be respected.
“We’re on call 24/7, after hours, on the weekends for emergencies,” Spencer said.
“There is no judgement; there is no shame,” said advocate Cynthia Welker. “There doesn’t have to be any public action made. Sometimes, it just helps to be heard.”
Confidentiality is guaranteed when speaking to the advocates. In fact, the department’s care for the comfort and confidentiality of their clients is obvious even in the building itself. With tinted windows and a doorbell, clients can be sure that they will not be observed or interrupted by anyone.
“Because we believe in the personhood and dignity of each person, … we advocate for both the respondent and the complainant,” Welker explained.
“(For the complainants,) we are the first responders. It’s been said that (getting) a positive experience from the first responders … negates years of counseling,” Welker said. “With the respondent, it is so important … to break the cycle.”
The respect for the inherent value of every person is what sets Franciscan’s advocacy program apart from other programs. The goal is not merely to negate evil and disrespect, Welker explained, but to improve the university environment as a whole, especially in terms of practicing respect and virtue.
“The ball is in your court,” Welker said. Both she and Spencer encourage anyone who wants to talk, no matter how big or small the problem, to come and meet the advocates.
“It doesn’t even have to be an experience that happened here at Franciscan,” Welker said, “It could be things that you were struggling with before you came.”
From Oct. 21 to 25, the Office of Campus Safety and Compliance will be holding “The Respect and Virtue Project,” a program to educate members of the Franciscan family on prevention and awareness, including empowerment and bystander intervention.
Welker and Spencer will be available to answer questions and organize prevention and awareness training for those interested. In addition, plans have already been made for several households to have training with the advocates; students should talk to their household advisors for more information on those meetings.
For more information or to get in contact with a confidential advocate, students, faculty and staff can call 740-283-4339 or 740-283-4337.