Keeping Secrets

Months after canceling a student-led support group, UC’s efforts to support sexual assault survivors are still up in the air

click to enlarge UC Women's Center Director Angela Fitzpatrick is working to develop new services for sexual assault survivors after the controversial closing of the RECLAIM program last semester.
UC Women's Center Director Angela Fitzpatrick is working to develop new services for sexual assault survivors after the controversial closing of the RECLAIM program last semester.

More and more, campus sexual assault prevention and counseling are the purview of schools like the University of Cincinnati, thanks to a shift in federal policy that places more responsibility for those assaults on the colleges where they happen.

UC got off to a rough start this school year when the school's Division of Student Affairs, which oversees the Women’s Center, abruptly cancelled the required 40-hour training for a student-lead advocacy program called RECLAIM in August for reasons that are still unclear.

The controversy led to outcry from student RECLAIM advocates and community partners who received conflicting messages from the administration about why it happened. Two Women’s Center staff members who directly oversaw the program resigned from their positions amid the controversy.

The RECLAIM program had operated as a peer-counseling service for survivors and promoted awareness and education of sexual assault on campus.

Now, the university is slowly trying to institute new efforts to aid sexual assault survivors, but as students start the new semester, details of the new programs still remain unclear.

Angela Fitzpatrick, director of the UC Women’s Center, says she’s working with the university to get a community-based advocate for sexual assault survivors on campus at the Steger Student Life Center this semester. The school expects to have someone assume the role before spring break, she says, but that person has not yet been named.

Getting a peer advocacy program back together is a priority for the university, Fitzpatrick says. She’s working with two administrators in the Division of Student Affairs on the issue: Debra Merchant, the department’s vice president; and Denine Rocco, the department’s assistant vice president. But development is still in the early stages. Fitzpatrick says she doesn’t know what it’s going to look like exactly, when it will launch or what resemblance, if any, it will have to the RECLAIM program.

“I think there’s been this impression in the community that survivors on campus have no resources, and that’s not quite right,” Fitzpatrick says. “They do have the support groups and the counselors at CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services]. The advocacy piece, of course, is what’s been missing, and that’s important. It’s very important.”

Bridget Hagood, assistant director of clinical services at CAPS, says its counselors recently started a second support group for survivors and that they waive fees for students seeking counseling for incidents related to sexual assault or gender-based violence.

In the meantime, students have been without the services of RECLAIM all year. Merchant, of the Department of Student Affairs, told CityBeat last September that she was trying to put the program back in place by rescheduling the training. But that doesn’t seem to have happened — RECLAIM’s webpage on the Women’s Center’s site has been disconnected. Merchant did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Fitzpatrick says she has little knowledge of what happened with RECLAIM; she started at UC on Oct. 26 after it had already fallen apart. Fitzpatrick joined UC from out-of-state to fill the position left vacant by a previous interim director who left Sept. 1.

The challenge with a student-based advocacy program like RECLAIM, Fitzpatrick says, is that, like many universities around the country, UC is still struggling with the legal details of guaranteeing student confidentiality as it develops resources for survivors.

The university is wading though federal Title IX stipulations requiring state employees to report any case of sexual assault to the university, with the exception of designated confidential resources like CAPS.

The university’s struggle with who is allowed to legally maintain confidentiality might have thrown a wrench into student-led programs like RECLAIM. In 2014, the university temporarily suspended the program and took away the 24-hour hotline, which was staffed by student advocates. It said its reinterpretation of Title IX guidelines made it impossible to guarantee confidentiality with the service.

“It’s like the more invested the university becomes, the more difficult it becomes for the people who have been doing the work for a long time to continue to do that work,” Fitzpatrick says, “because there are these new regulations, these new ideas about who should be doing the work.”

Though places like the Women’s Center and CAPS have historically taken charge of providing campus services for survivors, other players like UC’s Department of Public Safety have also started developing their own programs. Last April, the department created a Special Investigations Unit — the first of its kind in the country — with a trauma-informed special investigator and a victim services coordinator.

On Jan. 12, the day after spring semester kicked off, the department announced it would receive $12,400 from a state grant to open a private on-campus clinic staffed by an on-call nurse from nonprofit Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) of Butler County.

The grant money comes from $3 million set aside by the federal Victims of Crime Act to help universities develop more services for sexual assault survivors. When the clinic will open or where it will be located is still unknown. Jim Whalen, director of UC’s Public Safety Department, says it will be somewhere on the college’s uptown campus, but not at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

Whalen says the idea is that when UC police are notified of a sexual assault, the responding officer will call the department’s victim services coordinator who will then meet the victim at the clinic, along with the on-call SANE nurse. The coordinator will then help the victim navigate through the police procedure and additional services like counseling.

Whalen hopes the clinic will help victims to feel more comfortable reporting these types of crimes, which are highly underreported, by offering a more comforting, private area outside of a formal hospital setting and a coordinated procedure in place for the university to follow.

“It’s probably already the worst day of your life, and then you’re in an emergency room waiting room — they’re as sensitive and expeditious as they can be,” Whalen says. “But the fact of the matter is, if we can make that experience more comfortable, make you feel more secure in the process of it, then it’s way more ideal.”

Whalen says he’s unaware of any service like it currently on an Ohio college campus.

“We want to give it a try,” he says. “We think it has a lot of merit, and obviously the state attorney general agrees because they allotted the grant to us.” ©

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