Honors Class Spends Year Tackling Sexual Assault at the U

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The Honors College at the University of Utah provides year-long six-credit Praxis labs for students dedicated to researching and coming up with solutions to issues in society.  Senior Katie Houser and her classmates are currently taking the Honors Praxis lab “Gender, Health, and Human Rights.”

Although the class members could have tackled many issues, they chose one that affects students at the U on a more personal level.

“In response to the federal Title IX investigation and rising reported rates of sexual assault at the University of Utah, my Praxis class is working on a few projects this semester to address the lack of support, awareness and education for students who have experienced sexual assault,” Houser said.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Nearly one in five women and one in 71 men reported experiencing rape at some time in their lives” on a national level. Approximately one in 20 women and men had experienced unwanted sexual experiences within 12 months prior to the survey.

The campus climate survey on sexual assault conducted last year reported that 16.4 percent of women and 3.7 percent of men had experienced sexual assault since coming to the U, totalling 11 percent of students overall.

In 2014, the number of reported incidents of sexual assault on the U’s campus was 23. This includes rape, fondling, incest and other statutory offenses.  In 2015, the number of reported incidents rose to 40.

The class has been working toward building a website that will consolidate resources for victims of sexual assault. Those tools include counseling and recovery services, assault-related definitions and other information.  The dean of students is funding the effort and the website is scheduled to go live May 1.

The class is also lobbying the U’s Presidential Safety Task Force to increase the budget of the Women’s Resource Center (WRC).

“The budget reallocation idea was spurred from a project proposal to increase the recovery services for sexual assault survivors on campus,” Houser explained. “After doing an environmental scan and chatting with various offices on campus, we identified the WRC as having the most significant need for increased financial resources in order to increase their services.”

Houser and her classmates met with the director of WRC Debra Daniels and counseling coordinator Kristy Bartley to gather information to bring to the U’s administration.  Houser and a couple of her classmates sat down with the Presidential Safety Task Force co-chairs to discuss the need for more resources dedicated to sexual assault prevention before they made budget recommendations.

According to an information sheet prepared for the task force by the Praxis lab, WRC is working to help survivors of sexual assault through a variety of programs, counseling and training. Currently, however, there aren’t any full-time counselors and their office doesn’t have enough space for all of the staff.

There has been a waitlist to meet with a counselor at WRC since the first two weeks of this school year. Eighty-three percent of their clients have experienced some kind of violence. During the 2015-2016 academic year, counselors met with 73 individual clients, held 862 individual sessions and spent 533 hours group counseling. The class argues that the waitlist is an indicator that the center could use more staff and funding in order to provide adequate services.

The Praxis lab recommends increased hours for Bartley, funding for summer counseling and plans to expand office space.  On their information sheet, the class concluded, “Budget reallocation to the WRC would increase access to feminist multicultural counseling and recovery services, thereby increasing student retention and graduation and contributing to a more inclusive and safe campus environment.”

The Presidential Safety Task Force presents their budget recommendation to President David Pershing in early April, and the administration releases the full budget in May.

“We’ve discovered throughout the past three months of research and planning that we’re not the only students and community members that are trying to tackle this issue from the bottom up,” Houser said. “The topic of sexual assault is incredibly relevant within the U’s and Salt Lake’s community right now.”

Beyond the U and its surrounding community, sexual assault is a heavily discussed issue across the nation. In response to the to the conversation, on March 31 President Donald Trump designated April National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.

“According to the Department of Justice, on average there are more than 300,000 instances of rape or other sexual assault that afflict our neighbors and loved ones every year,” said Trump’s official statement. “Behind these painful statistics are real people whose lives are profoundly affected, at times shattered, and who are invariably in need of our help, commitment, and protection.”

The Trump administration said it plans to take advantage of this month to comb through laws and close loopholes in order to ensure perpetrators of sexual assault are held accountable. It also intends to increase national resources for victims, encourage active by-stander behavior and promote healthy personal relationships.

c.macdonald@dailyutahchronicle.com

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