Combating sexual assault through collaboration

GVL / Kevin Sielaff - Theresa Rowland is recognized for her work with Title IX at the Board of Trustees meeting on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016 in the Seidman College of Business on Grand Valleys Pew Campus.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL / Kevin Sielaff – Theresa Rowland is recognized for her work with Title IX at the Board of Trustees meeting on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016 in the Seidman College of Business on Grand Valley’s Pew Campus.

Hannah Lentz

By October of 2014, 85 colleges and universities came under federal investigation for their handling of sexual violence incidents on campuses across the nation. Grand Valley State University is one of those universities under investigation.

Since the start of the investigation, GVSU has implemented a position for a victim advocate and Violence Against Women grant coordinator, created a Victim’s Rights and Options web page and provided more educational seminars than ever before. But one of the main elements about GVSU’s focus on preventing and handling sexual assault is the emphasis put on embracing the idea of collaboration through the sexual assault response team (SART).

At GVSU, the team is made up of Ashley Schulte, Theresa Rowland, Brandon DeHaan, Renee Freeman, Marlene Kowalski-Braun, Bart Merkle and Pat Smith. Meeting once a week, the SART looks at ways to create a safe environment for GVSU students.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, the SART supports the safety, justice and autonomy of all victims and survivors of sexual violence; works to meet the needs of underserved and marginalized service providers in the development of SARTs; and creates a forum to enhance the response to systems advocacy and sexual violence prevention initiatives among sexual assault response teams.

“We gather as a team to look at what’s our best approach,” said Title IX Coordinator and Equity Officer Theresa Rowland. “How do we make sure we’re all on the same page and supporting the student or students the way that we need to be?”

If emergency situations arise, the SART will schedule an additional meeting to address the situation with various partners.

“We want to make sure that we are supporting our students,” Rowland said. “That we are supporting those that are reporting sexual violence. That we’ve given them our resources and our options. That we’re supporting them.”

Ashley Schulte has held the position of campus victim advocate at GVSU since May of 2015. Working as a private resource for victim/survivors, Schulte has participated in extensive training through the U.S. Department of Justice and Office on Violence Against Women.

The route that a student takes following an incident of sexual violence varies depending on the student’s needs. Through the victim advocate, students can be referred to counseling and other support services, medical options and procedures, including evidence collection, information about and referrals to legal advocacy.

“During conversations with students I will ask ‘have you been to the nurse examiner program? Would you like to do that? Let me help you coordinate that. Have you talked with the police? Here’s what the police investigation looks like. Have you talked with Title IX, here’s what the Title IX process looks like,’” Schulte said.

If a victim/survivor chooses to involve the police, the victim advocate can explain the process of filing Personal Protection Orders and provide support and assistance in reporting an assault to campus police. Those seeking help can also gain assistance in participating in a Title IX investigation, support or working with necessary housing, employment, or other accommodations or assistance for significant others and friends of victim/survivors of gender-based violence.

An initial appointment with Schulte lasts about an hour, depending on the situation, and then it’s up to the student what the next move is. Instead of a set procedure, Schulte works to provide information, resources and referral toward whichever avenue students want to take.

“Just because (students) report to her, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is going to be an investigation,” Rowland said. “She’s a resource to folks in the terms of information and referral.”

One thing that Schulte makes sure to focus on is the idea of creating a safe place for students who have experienced an act of violence to get the help they need.

“I work to provide a form of non-judgmental and private support to student survivors of violence,” Schulte said. “My top priority is making sure that students know what options are available to them and that they have a safe space to talk about the route they want to take.”

Though Schulte does play an instrumental role in the collaboration between each avenue, one of the important elements about Schulte’s role is that she will not release personally identifiable information without consent.

“We want students who come to us to take the route that is best for them,” Schulte said. “If they don’t take up the counseling services offered or other elements, that’s fine. When a student decides they have gotten the help they need, that’s when we have done our job.”

Theresa Rowland was named GVSU’s interim Title IX coordinator following the departure of Dwight Hamilton in February of 2015. Rowland came to GVSU in 2011 as the Violence Against Women Act grant coordinator and also served as the victim advocate.

Rowland received Title IX certification through the Association of Title IX Administrators. She currently co-chairs the SART.

As part of her position, Rowland monitors the university’s Title IX compliance including the training, education and administration of grievance procedures.

“Title IX is federal law and is to protect individuals from sex and gender-based discrimination,” Rowland said. “The role that Title IX has, specifically in terms of sexual harassment and violence, would be that we want to prevent its reoccurrence, we want to investigate if given the opportunity to do so and then we want to remedy the effects of the incident.”

Title IX can also work as another outlet to handle a situation of sexual violence.

“It’s an option for students to choose to do and sometimes, they choose it because maybe the criminal is intimidating, maybe the criminal option is intimidating to them for whatever reason so they just decide, ‘I want the university to address it,’” Rowland said.

The other element of Title IX covers the options available to students through the investigation process. Even if a student is taking the criminal route, there are things that Title IX can help accommodate that the criminal process doesn’t necessarily cover, Rowland said.

“We want to encourage students to report in any avenue they feel comfortable with in order to give the university an opportunity to provide accommodations, the opportunity to investigate and then to hold the criminal accountable,” Rowland said.

When a case is brought to the attention of Rowland, she looks at the situation from both sides, not holding one party responsible until going through evidence.

“I say ‘the respondent’ as they may or may not be responsible,” Rowland said. “With the information we acquire through the investigation process, we can determine the details.”

The Title IX office also provides information to students about the opportunities available to them, focusing first on what the student wants, Rowland said. The Title IX office also can recommend resources off campus such as the YWCA and Center for Women in Transition.

“Maybe they don’t want to talk to anyone about it for whatever reason, they just need the medical attention,” Rowland said. “If a student goes in there (off campus location) and says that they’ve experienced an assault, they’ll know who to talk to. I think guiding students to that is paramount. The other stuff can come as they are ready to disclose information.”

Though the adjudication process (determining of sanctions) is completed through the Dean of Student’s Office, Title IX is responsible for the remedies and the investigation, Rowland said.

Capt. Brandon DeHaan of the GVSU police department works through the legal path and criminal investigation process. When a student is referred to the police, it is with the intention of working through a full investigation.

During the investigation process, GVPD will not release information to the public or media and parents and guardians will not be notified unless the victim is a minor.

“We want students to feel comfortable with us through the entire process,” DeHaan said. “We will work with them to make the process as easy as possible and will work to bring those responsible to justice.”

GVPD can also help students arrange hospital treatment or other medical needs. Additionally, they will help to talk students through how to get in contact with a prosecutor’s office, the details of a court proceeding and the details of a university investigation.

“We’re here as a resource first and foremost,” DeHaan said.

Depending on the wants and needs of the victim, GVPD can work with the Victim Advocate and Title IX office to complete a full and thorough investigation, DeHaan said.

“GVPD, the victim advocate and Title IX, we all collaborate on what we offer,” Rowland said. “What is it that we can do to help the student or individuals involved in the incident?”

As the investigation continues and law enforcement gathers information, the other elements of the SART continue to work to provide assistance to victims.

“As far as the investigation part, we can make accommodations with students all the while that criminal process is going on and that’s where we’re different from law enforcement,” Rowland said.

The SART encourages students to get involved with clubs and organizations on campus that work to educate and prevent sexual assault at the university level. Organizations include Eyes Wide Open, ReACT, Greeks Against Sexual Assault and many others that can be found on OrgSync.

“We all play a part in this, so how do we support one another, how do we change our culture and how do you get involved?” Schulte said.

If a student has experienced sexual assault or know someone who has, they are encouraged to contact emergency services, consider meeting with either the campus victim advocate, Title IX coordinator or campus police for assistance.

“We all have different roles and we can work together to accomplish our respective goals,” Schulte said.