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Sexual assault prevention conference educates faculty

By Iona Feldman

Section: News, Top Stories

September 27, 2013

Brandeis hosted one of two state government sponsored conferences on sexual and domestic violence prevention on Tuesday, Sept. 17. Over 300 individuals from many institutions of higher education in the area attended the event at Sherman Function Hall. The conference featured two panels, one of which addressed the relationship between alcohol and sexual violence and the other which spoke of the Coordinated Community Response Team, a possible tool for handling sexual assault on campus. A diverse group of people spoke, from university administrators and government representatives to students.

The conference was co-sponsored by the Governor’s Council to Address Sexual and Domestic Violence and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Along with its partner conference at UMASS Amherst on Wednesday, it was intended as a response to a letter that Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray wrote in May.

Opening with the greeting of “Dear President,” the letter was sent to all Massachusetts college and university presidents. The letter drew attention to cases of “sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking” happening on the campuses of the 133 institutions of higher education in the commonwealth. The lieutenant governor’s letter was actually a response to a 2011 letter from the federal Department of Education, addressing the same issue.

Representing the Department of Public Health was Marci Diamond, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Survivor Services Unit and a Brandeis alumna. In an email, Diamond expressed her gratitude for Brandeis’s involvement.

“As a Brandeis alumna who began my professional work in sexual and domestic violence as a sophomore, volunteering at Waltham’s REACH Beyond Domestic Violence, I am especially appreciative of student leaders’ contributions—including my 2 current Brandeis interns—and of Brandeis’ leadership in hosting this important event.”

Diamond also explained some of the other ways that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) combats sexual violence. The MDPH works with and directly funds the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, an organization that offers free services to anyone affected by any form of sexual assault. The MDPH also has a program that gives survivors prompt access to nurses qualified to handle sexual assault cases.

Brandeis staff and professors played key roles in the event. Professor Bernadette J. Brooten (NEJS) was largely responsible for bringing the conference to the Brandeis campus. Brooten is the founder and director of the Brandeis Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, which promotes sexual ethics “based on the full dignity of all persons,” through a religious lens that comes to terms with past tolerance for slavery and sexual abuse.

There were also representatives of the Brandeis administration present, including President Frederick M. Lawrence and Provost Steve A. N. Goldstein ’78 MA ’78. In his opening remarks, Goldstein appealed to the philosophical ties that unite professors.

“That we are all gathered here for this forum is cause for concern and for hope. It is cause for concern because we need events like this one. All of us who work in higher education are attracted by the ideal of a community in which the only force exercised is the force of reason; Violence, therefore, has no place in our communities. But all of us are here today because we are painfully aware of the reality of sexual violence on our campuses. It is that awareness—awareness coupled with a commitment to confront the issue—that is cause for hope.” Goldstein also called on professors to treat dealing with misconduct, including sexual abuse, as a duty just as important as teaching in their subject areas.

Staff from other nearby institutions were present at the conference. One of them was Michelle Bowdler, MSPH, the senior director of Health and Wellness Service at Tufts University. Bowdler also sat on the governor’s council that planned the conference, which gave the many institutions of higher learning in Massachusetts an opportunity to work together on this critical issue.

In a telephone conversation earlier this week, Bowdler highlighted the relevance of sexual assault to all college students, pointing to the statistics about the prevalence of sexual violence. According to a 1990 study by Kathleen Hirsch, one in four women will be the victim of a sexual assault during her academic career. Also, a study done by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that four percent of college men have been raped in their lives.

“We all need to pay attention to it, we need to understand that it’s real, and we need to do everything we can to prevent it, respond to victims and survivors, to hold people accountable and to educate our student body about what perpetration is, what consent is and to have them understand that this is crime,” Bowdler said. As an alumna of the class of 1982, Bowdler also expressed pride to see that the issue of sexual assault is recognized at Brandeis by the most senior leadership of the university. While recognizing the importance of student activism, she believes it to be a good sign that the administration is taking a leadership role on this issue.

Current Brandeis students also played a critical role planning the conference. Caitlin Taborda, an MA student in the Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies Program, did much work for the conference in her role as project coordinator for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project. In an email exchange earlier this week, Taborda highlighted the contributions of the many graduate students that worked on this project. She also offered advice to current students seeking to get involved in these kinds of issues. The Heller School has a Gender Working Group, and undergraduates can get involved with the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, or can contact campus advocates such as Brooten.

The conference showcased the underlying collaboration that now exists among the government, non-profit institutions, professors, administrators and students to tackle one of the most pressing issues on college campuses today.

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