‘We have a responsibility’: Panel discusses Title IX resources, sexual assault awareness


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Pittsburgh Action Against Rape — an organization to help victims of sexual or relationship violence — led a discusson via Zoom on Thursday to talk about how to support survivors of sexual misconduct on college campuses, specifically how to use the Title IX office’s resources, what trauma from sexual violence can look like and how to help victims of sexual violence.

By Allison Radziwon, Staff Writer

Pitt has a “problem with its culture” that needs to be “changed” in order to create a safer campus for students dealing with various forms of harrassment, discrimination and violence, according to Carrie Benson.

“Knowing that so many people at our campus have experienced various forms of harassment, discrimination and violence, it also means that we have a responsibility to create our campus to be more trauma-informed so we’re supporting folks who have,” Benson, the prevention and education coordinator at Pitt’s Title IX office, said.

Pittsburgh Action Against Rape — a local organization that helps survivors of sexual or relationship violence —  led a discusson via Zoom on Thursday morning to talk about how to support survivors of sexual misconduct on college campuses, the effects of trauma from sexual violence on survivors and resources at Pitt. Pitt partnered with PAAR to hold the workshop as part of its recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which is in April.

Benson described the Title IX reporting process, which can be “stopped at any time” at the “survivor’s request.” Survivors can report situations to mandated reporters — such as faculty members — Pitt police, the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion or PAAR, according to Benson.

Benson said the mandated reporter discloses the situation to Title IX’s “Interim Measures Specialist” — someone who specializes in accommodations and resources for survivors. Benson also said the specialist then reaches out to the survivor to provide information about “resources, as well as reporting options.” If the survivor wants to file a “formal complaint,” an investigator from the Title IX office will be assigned to their case and “proper procedure” will be followed, Benson added.

PAAR advocate Willa Campbell said there are two categories of sexual misconduct as defined by PAAR. One of these categories is “no touch” — which includes stalking, revenge porn and harassment — and the other is “touch,” which includes rape and sexual assault. Campbell said PAAR helps any survivors “across the spectrum” — including sex trafficking survivors — if they are seeking services.

“Anybody and everybody can get these services because we know that anyone’s response to trauma is so individual, and we want to make sure they are supported no matter where they fall,” Campbell said. “There’s no hierarchy to trauma.”

Susie Balcom, another PAAR advocate, said trauma symptoms, such as “the inability to regulate emotions, emotional numbing, feeling isolated, unhealthy coping skills and the inability to make meaning of the traumatic experience,” can sometimes cause survivors to struggle with reporting their experiences.

Balcom also said “memory gaps” caused by trauma from the violence can make it difficult for survivors to be believed, since they often can’t fully remember what happened to them.

“Based on what’s happening in the brain on a biological level during traumatic instances, we literally lack language to explain what our experience was like,” Balcom said. “Our brain is focused on surviving rather than focused on the details, and so memory gaps are very common because our brains were not taking in that information.”

Balcom added that another important way to support survivors is to always believe them.

“Above all, victims and survivors need to be believed. They very well may have never been told, ‘I believe you,’ so if you have an opportunity to say that, we really ask that you do it,” Balcom said. “It’s ultimately healing and they really need to hear it. They need to be believed. They need to be recognized as a survivor of sexual assault. They may not yet identify that way, so it’s important to mimic the terminology that they’re using.”

Campbell said the initial response that survivors receive after disclosing their story is “critical” to how they cope with their trauma going forward, especially when reporting to police or hospitals.

“[If] you have a very calming, supportive response, they’re more likely to talk to the next person, and the next person, and the next person,” Campbell said. “So, maybe, for example, if they’re talking to the nurse and the nurse is supportive, the person will let them call us.”

Balcom said “warm referrals” are necessary to ensure survivors go forward with treatment for their trauma.

“The research shows that when we do warm referrals, people are much more likely to use these services,” Balcom said. “A warm referral would be you calling PAAR with them, or jumping on the PAAR website and clicking through it with them. It would look like you walking to the Title IX office or calling the Title IX office with them.”

According to Balcom, with proper support, effort and time, students can work through the traumas they’ve experienced.

“It’s very important to consider the fact that on a neurobiological level, these people are changed,” Balcom said. “But what I do like to stress is that it can be reversed with therapy, with just everyday support, with love, with good experiences, with professional services. People can get back to where they were. It just takes time.”