Advocacy Center

Students launch petition protesting changes to sexual assault resources at SU

Sam Maller | Staff Photographer

Janet Epstein, director of the Advocacy Center, and Chancellor Kent Syverud listen to a speaker during the annual Take Back the Night event in April. On Friday, Syverud announced major changes to the Advocacy Center and sexual assault resources at SU.

A student petition protesting major changes to sexual assault resources at Syracuse University has received more than 1,500 signatures since it was launched Friday night.

In a memo released Friday morning, Chancellor Kent Syverud said there will be a restructuring of the resources for students who seek assistance for sexual assault. This includes a division of services within the Advocacy Center. Syverud added that the primary source for students to report or seek assistance about sexual assault will now be the Counseling Center.

Students who need these services currently have five different places they can go, and university officials said the announced changes will help centralize these services, while also allowing complete confidentiality. But students unhappy with the changes claim the Counseling Center doesn’t have the proper resources to help sexual assault victims.

In an email to Advocacy Center volunteers, Jill Sneider, the sexual health coordinator, said that the support services, prevention education and volunteer opportunities coordinated by the Advocacy Center will still occur, but within other offices. Advocacy Services will be in the Office of Student Assistance and Sneider’s position will be in the Office of Health Promotion, as will the student groups associated with the Advocacy Center, according to the email, which was obtained by The Daily Orange.

“We will keep you informed as we learn more about the new structure,” Schneider said in the email. “The one thing we know for sure is that the Advocacy Center as we have known it will no longer exist as of June 4, 2014.”

The same day Syverud released the memo detailing the merge of the Advocacy Center’s services, Erin Carhart, an SU student who just graduated this spring with a bachelor’s degree in public policy and a minor in women’s and gender studies, said she began an online petition on change.org in response to the memo.

The online petition is a letter to Syverud asking for the reinstatement of The Advocacy Center to provide confidential sexual assault support services at SU, Carhart said. She added that every time a student signs the petition, Syverud receives an email with the petition’s letter.

“He can’t ignore us,” Carhart said.

This year Carhart was the president of the campus organization affiliated with The Advocacy Center, Students Advocating Sexual Safety and Empowerment. She said she has volunteered for SASSE and The Advocacy Center since she was a freshman at SU.

In Carhart’s petition she expressed her concern that patient-based care atmospheres, such as the Counseling Center, are not effective for victims of sexual assaults.

“As sexual assault awareness advocates, we know this does not work. We know that placing these services under an umbrella of mental health services does not work. We know that consolidating these services within a larger pool of health services does not work,” said Carhart in her petition. “But we know what does work. We know that The Advocacy Center at SU provided a safer space for students to come forward with their experiences and heal.”

Rebecca Reed Kantrowitz, senior vice president for student affairs, said although changes are being made, “absolutely nothing is being taken away.”

“We appreciate students and community members expressing their feelings about the Advocacy Center. These changes are about one thing — serving students better,” Kantrowitz said in an emailed statement.

In a phone interview, Kantrowitz said the university is creating two new staff positions at the Counseling Center that will focus specifically on sexual assault and relationship violence. All the Advocacy Center student groups will continue their work and there will be no interruption in services, she said.

The changes being made to the center are about streamlining services and making sure students have “real clarity on where you go for what,” Kantrowitz said. In addition, with the Counseling Center now serving as the main point of entry for these services, it will also allow students to get confidential help, she said.

“It’s not our intent to have people be upset or think things are being taken away,” Kantrowitz said. “I think this will be better for students.”

In Syverud’s memo he said students can now report sexual assault with complete confidentiality at the new primary service at the Counseling Center. However, Carhart said she remembered the Advocacy Center to be completely confidential until SU enforced a policy known as the “responsible employee clause” from Title IX eight months ago.

Title IX states that any responsible employee must report any information they receive about a sexual assault case, unless the employee has a professional counseling or therapy degree said Sam Meyers, who graduated from SU in 2013 and was co-leader of Sex-Esteem and helped organize Take Back the Night during her time at the university. Meyers added that because the director of The Advocacy Center, Janet Epstein, did not have a counseling degree, SU took her right to complete confidentiality away.

However, in an online question-and-answer form released by the US Department of Education in April, The Office of Civil Rights stated that the responsible employee policy in Title IX is up for interpretation for faculty within schools’ advocacy centers.

The document states, “the OCR recognizes that some people who provide assistance to students who experience sexual violence are not professional or pastoral counselors. These non-professional counselors or advocates are valuable sources of support for students, and OCR strongly encourages schools to designate these individuals as confidential sources.”

The Counseling Center was granted complete confidentiality at SU, because there are trained counselors who are not considered responsible employees under Title IX, Meyers said.

Meyers said she believes the Counseling Center is a good source for students, but the physical space of The Advocacy Center made a statement about the issue of sexual assault on campus.

“To me, it devalues how important it (sexual assault) is to the campus and university as a whole,” she said.

Meyers added that “the most frustrating part” about the sudden change is the students and faculty were not considered in the decision process.

Caroline Heres, one of the founding members of The Girl Code Movement, said Janet Epstein, the director of the AC was the first person she came to with the idea for The Girl Code Movement.

There are plans to create a blog, permitting students to share their stories about how the Advocacy Center impacted their lives, Heres said.

She added that it is a shame SU is removing a service for sexual assault that she and other students were proud of, especially when there have been recent initiatives to end sexual assault on a national basis through the White House Task Force on Sexual Assault and the #YesAllWomen campaign.

Said Heres: “It seems that the university is taking a step back.”

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