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Student sexual health group facing uncertain future

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Students from a University at Albany sexual health education group have started a campaign to “Save SHAPE” after learning that their director would step down and Middle Earth would help lead until a new director comes in.

Director Carol Stenger began SHAPE (Sexual Health and Peer Education) in the 1990s. Students in SHAPE host events and classes teaching other students about sexuality, sexual health, and sexual violence.

In a meeting on March 23, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Clarence McNeil announced to SHAPE students that Stenger felt it was time for her to step down.

Students in attendance said McNeil expressed uncertainty about how the transition would work. This uncertainty was echoed by leadership of Project SHAPE’s new oversight center, Behavioral Health and Applied Research.

The decision came after Stenger’s leadership in the Advocacy Center for Sexual Violence began to take up more of her time and effort. Stenger and the other advocate at the center, Mary McCarthy, have seen 162 new cases this academic year, already surpassing last year’s new case total according to university spokesman Jordan-Carleo Evangelist.

Stenger declined a request for comment.

Stenger, who holds a graduate degree in human sexuality from New York University, founded the University’s Advocacy Center for Sexual Violence four years ago. The Center seeks to be a place where students can talk and receive support after instances of sexual violence.

Michael Christakis, vice president of student affairs, said Friday there were no plans to hire new staff, though Stenger has advocated for that change.

“Their case load’s gone up, and there’s always gonna be a desire for new staff,” said Christakis. “You make strategic allocations best that you can, and [Stenger] knows where we stand on that.”

Some students in SHAPE view this as avoiding an easy solution to their problem: If the university hired another advocate for the Center, they say, Stenger could continue leading Project SHAPE.

McNeil also informed SHAPE students that Stenger would no longer be teaching the organization’s training courses in human sexuality, ECPY 311 and 312. The courses have previously been required for every SHAPE member, leading many at the meeting to voice significant pushback.

“If we don’t have someone to teach the class, we’re not going to know any of the information that we’re teaching,” said SHAPE member Kirstin O’Sullivan in an interview Wednesday. “The organization is pretty much null without the course.”

Dr. Dolores Cimini, director of Behavioral Health and Applied Research, which oversees Middle Earth, said Wednesday that Middle Earth will try to find other ways for SHAPE students to receive training.

“We need to explore that,” said Cimini. “There have been courses in department of psychology, the department of sociology; we would network and give the students what they need.”

In a note to Middle Earth student leadership, Cimini emphasized that Middle Earth would only be helping Project SHAPE transition.

“At no time did Middle Earth intend to absorb Project SHAPE permanently or compromise its identity as a group,” said Cimini in the note. “The goal has always been to welcome Project SHAPE students and conduct a process over the next year to examine how the transition could best be accomplished.”

Cimini said that they have not yet met with SHAPE members, saying that now was not a good time since emotions are running high.

In the coming months, newly-appointed Middle Earth Director Sarah Nolan will be working to process applications for new Project SHAPE members.

How the process will work is unclear. Cimini said last week that Middle Earth was considering bringing new SHAPE applicants into their peer wellness track, but that the process of how Middle Earth will help SHAPE is still being developed.

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

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