A Pitt student’s death is still leaving a mark on campus, more than a month after her passing.
In light of Alina Sheykhet’s death, Pitt Unmuted — a club created for survivors of sexual assault to share their stories — held a series of three events discussing the topic of intimate partner violence. The club was formed in October in response to Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’ decision to rescind Obama-era Title IX protections.
Sheykhet, a junior physical therapy student, was found dead in her home on Cable Place Oct. 8. Matthew Darby, Sheykhet’s ex-boyfriend whom she had filed a protection-from-abuse order against, was charged with homicide.
The first event of the club, held Oct. 16, focused on defining intimate partner violence and the role gender plays in it. The second discussion — which about 10 people attended on Oct. 30 — concentrated on issues within the judicial system concerning domestic violence, and the third on Monday, Nov. 12, highlighted the emotional, physical and psychological aspects of intimate abuse.
Krithika Pennathur, the president of Pitt Unmuted and a junior majoring in English nonfiction writing, history, and gender, sexuality and women’s studies, said she considered the events to be successful for a club just starting out.
“It’s a really difficult topic to talk about so we do understand that sometimes members do not want to come to meetings just because they might be triggered,” she said.
At the first meeting of the three-part series, Pennathur said the group had an enlightening discussion on how intimate partner violence can occur within all relationships, not just heterosexual ones.
“It’s not a singular type of thing where a man is abusing a woman,” Pennathur said. “It was definitely a difficult first discussion, but I think it went well.”
At the second event Oct. 30, Unmuted board members Caroline Eddy, a junior majoring in English writing nonfiction, and Madeline Schatten, a junior majoring in anthropology, led a discussion about issues within the judicial system when it comes to domestic violence. They focused on the pros and cons of obtaining a protection-from-abuse order. A PFA protects an individual from another’s abuse without placing the offender under arrest by allowing a judge to grant temporary protection.
“A PFA is less about punishment but more about protection for the victim,” Schatten said.
Eddy said the advantage of a PFA is that it does not punish the offender, so it would make the victim more inclined to report. But at the same time, she said, once one leaves the courtroom, the victim is still at risk because the offender is not locked away.
An attendee of the second meeting, who asked to remain anonymous because they experienced sexual assault, was surprised to hear at the talk about the difficulties sexual assault survivors can face filling out a PFA. The orders have a three-year limit and do not result in criminal charges for the offender.
“I thought originally that the PFA was more protective over the victim,” they said. “It’s really eye-opening coming to these kinds of discussions because you really get to see the way other people feel.”
Pennathur said Sheykhet had filed for a PFA but that nothing really came of it.
“I think Pitt can do more with providing survivors resources,” Pennathur said. “If [information] was more accessible to people, I think more would want to report.”
Some of the resources that are offered at Pitt include the counseling center, the Title IX office, the Self Defense Awareness Familiarization Exchange program, the Pitt Police and the Office of Student Conduct.
But the survivor who chose to remain anonymous agreed with Pennathur that Pitt could provide more resources besides recommending going to Title IX, which they feel is too bureaucratic.
Schatten explained that perpetrators of sexual violence are less likely to go to jail or prison than other criminals, citing statistics that only 344 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police — meaning about two out of three go unreported. Pennathur said survivors that do report are often met with disappointing results or can be frustrated by the lengthy judicial process.
“Reporting is not the end all be all and frankly, it can be more taxing,” Pennathur said.
Angela Kodokian, a sophomore majoring in psychology, said she is active in Pitt Unmuted because dating violence was a prevalent issue in her own life and she needed a space to talk about it. She said the people who survive abuse are interrogated about their own actions too much, since they have to go through so much paperwork and retell their story over and over.
“I think that the narrative should be flipped and that when it comes to legislation and the legal process, there should be more emphasis on the abuser and what’s being reported,” she said.
Pennathur said she hoped people were able to learn from the discussion and feels that Pitt Unmuted provided a safe space for students to reflect on abuse and discuss healing.
“The biggest support systems are the peers,” she said. “The people in this room have helped me come to terms about things.”