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Sexual violence prevention advocates face new obstacles

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As the #MeToo movement and increased awareness of sexual assault on campus progresses, student and professional groups on campus face new challenges this semester.

“Teaching a year long course, and working and doing all these evening courses, is stuff that I love doing, and I miss desperately,” said Carol Stenger, director of the Advocacy Center for Sexual Violence. “But I can’t keep that up when I’m also going to the hospital at 2 in the morning with students.”

The Advocacy Center is carved into the west corner of Indian Quad, a small cluster of offices with warm lighting and hot water ready for waiting teabags. Stenger and her fellow advocate, Mary McCarthy, are in the business of helping sexually abused, harassed and assaulted students through every step of their journey.

Stenger arrived at the University at Albany in the 1980s as a 21-year-old Residential Director, but soon her passions drove her upwards. She started teaching sexuality courses and forming a student peer education group called Project SHAPE — a group that she has finally stepped back from in response to an ever-increasing caseload at the Advocacy Center.

After President Obama’s guidance in 2014 to better police sexual violence on college campuses, Stenger and other administrators at UAlbany decided that they needed a dedicated place for students to come and speak with trustworthy and knowledgeable advocates

Four years after starting the Center, it has become such an often-visited resource that Stenger has settled into the position full-time, staying there long hours of the day and getting calls long into the night.

“My goal in starting the center was to increase reports and decrease incidents,” Stenger said, though she warns this can be misinterpreted.

Citing a 1988 study by Ms. Magazine finding that 42 percent of students assaulted on college campuses tell no one, Stenger argues that the increase in reports is a step forward.

Stenger’s job ranges from listening to students and informing them of their options after a sexual assault, to getting phone calls from the hospital at 3 in the morning and accompanying frightened students through often confusing and invasive rape kits.

“Even on the weekends, they can call me, and they do,” Stenger said. “Some months I go two times, sometimes zero. This month has been a lot.”

She has long petitioned her superiors at the university to hire a third advocate to help with the large caseload. Earlier this year, Student Affairs Vice President Michael Christakis indicated in an interview that there were still no plans to expand the Center.

Last semester, Stenger made the decision to step away from Project SHAPE, the student peer education group that she had led, trained, and organized since the 1990s. Though students from the group rallied around Stenger, created a petition to hire another advocate, and met with administrators, they

SHAPE is now in a period of transition. Stenger is not teaching the 6-credit class, and SHAPE is now under the Counseling and Psychology Services (CAPS).

President Kirstin O’Sullivan did not respond to request for comment.

COMMUNITY SIDE

Meanwhile, student leader Tess Edwards faces a challenging atmosphere translating social media outrage at sexual assault into real action.

“It’s very easy to like pictures or comment on posts online. But when it comes to actually having to show up and have a discussion, people are hesitant to do so,” said Edwards, the president of Two and a Half.

The group, which works to combat sexual violence, first began on campus in 2013. Its names comes from a statistic: every two and a half minutes someone is sexually assaulted in the United States.

The statistic has since worsened, according to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest Network, which says someone is assault every 90-seconds in the U.S.

This semester, members of the group have continued to collaborate on events like “Black Women: Know Your Rights,” and offer themselves as relatable resources for students who have suffered from sexual assault.

But whether the increased attention to sexual violence in national and local media has helped is a harder question to answer.

After a former student gained attention posting dozens of anonymous stories of assault at UAlbany, Edwards said the reaction from the students she works with was mixed.

“In general minority communities tend to protect their own, and for valid reasons because of attacks historically on minority communities,” she said. “However, I do think it’s a larger cultural change that’s necessary to really tackle sexual assault.”

Amber Stephens, secretary for Two and A Half, is also a member of the recently-formed Sexual Violence Prevention Ambassadors.

Stephens is optimistic about the culture on campus.

“I feel like the word on sexual violence is getting out more,” said Stephens. “The campus is slowly but surely becoming more educated about sexual violence as a whole.”

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Joe Hoffman is the managing editor for the Albany Student Press.

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