College students rally for sexual assault awareness

On Sunday, 100 people rallied together for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Students from Carnegie Mellon, Carlow University, and the University of Pittsburgh joined what organizers hope will be an annual event to support survivors of sexual violence. The walk, Pittsburgh Universities Believe Survivors (PUBS), was spearheaded by a group of Carlow students and supported by the Title IX offices at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.

“We want students and the local community to know that they have a voice — and we want to hear it,” said Caitlin Hoag (she/her) in an interview with The Tartan. Hoag, a senior at Carlow studying respiratory therapeutics, helped organize the event. “The whole goal is for people to know that we believe them, that they have control of their own story. Most of all, that nobody’s alone in this fight.”

Participants marched from Carlow University to the Tepper Quad chanting, “However we dress, wherever we go, consent isn’t optional. No means no!” Carlow students spent months planning the event, which was initially introduced as an idea last spring. Signs flashed messages like, “We believe you,” “Clothes aren’t consent,” and “**** Abusers,” a red-lipped sticker planted over the first asterisk.

Women in college are three times more likely to be victims of sexual violence than women of all ages, according to data from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). The organization reports that 26.4 percent of women and 6.8 percent of men experience rape or sexual assault as undergraduate students (nonbinary students were not included in RAINN’s research). Jamie Edwards-Pasek (she/her), the Associate Director of Education and Outreach at Carnegie Mellon’s Title IX office, said between 100 to 200 reports are made to the office each year.

“The best thing about Carlow is it’s small, and you know people,” Hoag explained. A few years ago, students pushed the university to take action against sexual violence on campus — “to do something about it.” And they did.

In the spring of 2020, Carlow appointed Dr. Erin Tunney as the Director of Gender-Based Violence Prevention. Tunney was described by one alum as a woman who is “always trying to get a billion things done at once, and somehow, it always happens.” The graduate, KJ Miller (he/they/she), received degrees in creative writing and liberal studies last year and now serves as a peer educator coordinator at the university.

Tunney hit the ground running. She was awarded a $289,000 grant from the Department of Justice for Project SAFE, a government-sponsored initiative at Carlow to prevent gender-based violence. The pandemic stymied her momentum, but Tunney managed to introduce Project SAFE to campus. The effort turned out to be exactly what students had wanted, Hoag explained. “We were looking for ways to honor survivors on campus. There are a lot of people.”

Project SAFE leads conversations on consent, victim-blaming workshops, bystander intervention lectures, and police trainings on campus. They recently draped T-shirts with slogans like “believe survivors” across the campus science building to raise awareness about sexual assault. Last semester, Project SAFE spoke with student athletes about consent. “It was eye-opening,” Hoag recalled. “Consent is not something people usually talk about — even though we should. We taught people that coercion is not consent. It’s sad that they were in college and didn’t know that.” But Hoag was glad the initiative created the space to address this ignorance.

Project SAFE is also collaborating with Madwomen in the Attic, a women’s writing space at Carlow. Together, they are working to assemble submissions for the third volume of “Dionne’s Story.” The anthology honors the memory of Dionne Scott White, a Carlow student who took night classes toward a degree in professional writing. In 2003, her longtime boyfriend strangled her to death. She was 33 and the mother of three children.

Carlow students have made an intentional effort to remember White. The first volume of "Dionne’s Story" was published in 2009, featuring student submissions that center on violence against women. Its third volume will be released on Tuesday.

"Project SAFE has dismantled barriers that would have otherwise taken years to break down," Miller said. This was exemplified when Miller wanted to change their email address so it would not include their deadname, “but that’s not something I can just edit, making things difficult for me on a daily basis.”

Miller was ready for a wall of resistance. “I expected a lot of pushback because I was told to expect [that] from my older queer friends,” he explained. But when Miller sent the request through Project SAFE, resistance was nowhere in sight. The university made the change. “I didn’t know where to put my adrenaline because I was preparing for a fight.”

Project SAFE works closely with university initiatives and community organizations, like the Women’s Center and Shelter. Their partnership with Pittsburgh Action Against Rape helped create online training modules, which Miller found valuable because of its accessibility. Collaboration with the UPMC Gender Clinic introduced a speaker series that featured Jorge Vidal, the project coordinator at the Culturally Specific Services Program. The organization creates culturally-appropriate responses to sexual and/or domestic violence. Miller emphasized that Vidal did such a “good job, I have the video saved and I still go back and watch it sometimes.”

What makes the student-backed group unique is that it brings lived experience to university policy. “One of the huge reasons Project SAFE is on campus is because of the ways Title IX cases were handled,” Hoag recalled. A lack of transparency surrounding the reporting process made it difficult for survivors to share their stories. Yet these students deserve to “know they have control over what’s going to happen next. If you don’t know that, it makes reporting really scary, because there are a lot of unknowns.”

Project SAFE has pushed for the Title IX Office to create a digestible timeline that tells students what to expect when reporting. Hoag attributed Tunney as a champion of this effort: “Dr. Tunney has gone through [Title IX directives] with a fine-tooth comb.” Hoag wants to ensure the process does not cause survivors to “re-traumatize themselves by repeating their story over and over.”

Miller sees Project SAFE as an opportunity for empowerment at Carlow. But beyond the outward-facing work their leaders do, Miller is grounded by the internal efforts at play. “I’m really proud of all the people who are … continuing to choose to be involved, because I think it’s really easy to experience burnout in a field like this.” Miller lauded the bravery and resilience of Project SAFE’s leadership to preserve “even when it’s exhausting.”

Another initiative underway is a campus climate survey, to gauge the proportion of students who are victims of violence. “We did try to do it in 2021, but we didn’t get enough results,” Hoag said in reference to publishing the survey. “As small as Carlow is, nobody knows about [Project SAFE].”

They hope that PUBS changes that.

The idea for PUBS began last semester, when students’ demands for visibility were high. So Peer Educators — Project Safe’s student leaders — brainstormed ways to offer students “a leg to stand on at this university.” Their idea: a walk through Oakland, where students from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University could join to show their support for survivors of sexual violence.

When Hoag became a peer educator, she was surprised by her friends’ response to her new job: “stories of times that someone violated their boundaries.” And it seemed like this was one of the first times the stories had been told. “They felt like they’re the only people that had to experience that,” Hoag recalled, making their storytelling “bittersweet.” Because of the work Hoag engages in with Project SAFE, there is now a space for these stories to be heard.

Hoag said students have shared their stories to peer educators who table on campus, reinforcing the importance of “having someone listen to your story and say, ‘I’m here for you and I hear you.’”