Winona State to hire advocate

McKenna Scherer, Editor in Chief

Winona State University is currently in the process of hiring a full-time gender-based violence advocate, a first for the university.

Sarah Olcott, the Housing and Residence Life representative on the university’s Sexual Violence Advisory Committee, said she approved advertising for the position on Jan. 20.

The position was a student resource that was “missing on campus,” Olcott said.

Winona State currently does not have any official staff or faculty members specifically available to students as a gender-based violence advocate according to the school’s Director of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Tamara Berg.

Berg said the university had received a federal grant from the Department of Justice from 2013 to 2019 to fund peer advocacy programs, of which she was the primary principle investigator and grant writer for.

However, that grant was not renewed in 2019.

During those years when the university did receive the federal grant, it provided the funding for peer advocacy and education programs on campus including the university’s RE Initiative and the completely student-led program known as PACT Training.

The RE Initiative focused on supporting survivors of gender-based violence and working on creating a culture of respect and responsibility, according to the university’s website.

The RE Initiative aimed to educate the campus on consent and gender-based violence, reduce the amount of gender-based violence and certify the most amount of people possible as active bystanders.

Berg said the Initiative and its several other peer advocacy and education programs, like the previously popular Take Back the Night events and having guest speakers come to talk about gender-based violence, have not continued after the loss of the grant funding.

Along with the loss of those kinds of events, the grant had also funded student positions as peer advocates, which allowed students to learn how to be an advocate, working with people who had experienced gender-based violence like sexual harassment, stalking, sexual assault, etc.

Those peer advocate student job positions are no longer available.

“Since Winona State didn’t get the grant renewed in 2019, the question is, how are they going to continue the work of prevention education and providing appropriate services for victims and survivors,” Berg said.

In Winona, the Advocacy Center organization provides assistance to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault 24/7, as well as offering education on those and related topics and various other resources for victims.

The Advocacy Center is now the only resource for victims of gender-based violence at Winona State since the university has not continued any of the programs or events that the grant once funded, Berg said.

“We don’t have anyone on campus outside of counselling or health services, and that’s a different function in my opinion,” Berg said. “Counselors are not advocates, counselors are counselors and medical staff are not advocates. They can advocate for victims, but their jobs are really different.”

Olcott described the duties of a professional gender-based violence advocate as someone who can “completely be there” for students as a resource and walk them through whatever they may be going through and “through wherever they want the process to go.”

The “process” being what the student may want or need from the advocate moving forward, from anything like going to the police about a situation or simply having someone to talk to and offer different options for care.

“It’s their [the student’s] choice, and the advocate, to be able to explain those options so much more fluently and be that consistent resource for students,” Olcott said. “To have one person really dedicated and to be that confidential advocate, I think it’s going to be a huge bonus.”

Berg said she understood that the evolving and continuous struggle with COVID-19 may be affecting if and how the university can fund resources for gender-based violence and education on related topics, but that it is a disservice to students.

“I think that there are still essential things that should be happening that aren’t, like the prevention education. Students aren’t getting that,” Berg said.

Berg also said the grant funded a campus climate survey for several years that allowed students to anonymously answer questions and submit information about gender-based violence incidents, including sexual assault and sexual harassment.

In the 2017 campus climate survey, more than 1,300 Winona State students participated.

There were a mix of female- and male-identifying, transgender, gender-nonconforming, gender-fluid and agender participants with grade levels ranging from first-year students to graduate and non-traditional students.

There were also participants identifying with several types of sexual orientations such as heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual, etc., all anonymously sharing their experience with gender-based violence.

The survey also asked participants if they held any student leadership positions on campus, including being a resident assistant, student athlete, student senate representative, Greek life leader, etc.

More than 20% of participants said they did hold a student leadership on campus.

Then, the survey dove into its gender-based-violence-focused questions.

Questions included topics such as if students felt faculty were genuinely concerned with their welfare, if they felt safe on campus, how they felt the university would respond if a sexual assault were reported, if they had ever received information on policies and procedures for incidents of sexual assault, etc.

114 students said “yes” when asked if anyone had had sexual contact with them by use of physical force or threats of physical harm.

125 students said “yes” when asked if anyone had attempted but not succeeded in having sexual contact with them by use of physical force of threats of physical harm.

220 students said “yes” when asked if they had ever been coerced into having sexual contact they did not want.

331 students said “yes” when asked if anyone had ever attempted to coerce them into having sexual contact they did not want.

The survey also asked students to answer what happened if someone threatened them with physical force or had been physically forced into sexual contact, including forced touching, oral sex, sexual intercourse, etc.

The survey also asked students if drugs or alcohol had been used prior to any incident, although it also stated, “Keep in mind that you are in no way responsible for the assault that occurred even if you had taken or used drugs/alcohol”.

The survey also asked if the student suspected or knew they had been given a drug without their knowledge or consent prior to the incident.

Further questions included ones such as if the student knew who had committed the unwanted behavior and if they were a student or a person affiliated with the university, like an employee or staff or faculty member.

2 students said “yes” when asked if the person who had committed the unwanted behavior was affiliated with the university, while 14 students said they did not know.

More than 90% of students said “no” to that question.

The survey also asked students to identify the location of where the incident occurred, including residence halls, campus classrooms, or other locations.

54 students said incidents occurred in residence halls or other university housing.

214 students said incidents occurred off campus or at other locations.

One student said an incident occurred on campus outside at the gazebo, near the center of Winona State’s campus.

Since the campus climate surveys are anonymous, the university receives the data but may not be able to intervene and will not know the identity of those who submit their answers.

However, Berg said through PACT Training, data was able to show that the peer education program was changing culture on campus and particularly in rape and sexual assault education.

“We were able to show that the peer education actually was changing the culture at Winona State to be less victim blaming and less buying into rape myths,” Berg said. “We also saw students self-reporting that they were much more confident in their ability to intervene.”

Berg said students who participated in leading events and filling the student positions as advocates gained great experience and many went on to become professional advocates or onto grad school, among other things.

“It was basically increasing bystander intervention and competence, we saw those things happening,” Berg said. “Really valuable things to not continue. It’s too bad that that opportunity is also gone.”

While staff and faculty members as well as students at Winona State are required to complete an online module on topics related to gender-based violence, no other prevention education has occurred since the grant funding ended, according to Berg.

Olcott said the full-time advocate position description has been “vetted by everyone it needs to be vetted by,” but the committee is still waiting on approval from Minnesota State and Lori Mikl, the university’s director of affirmative action/equity and legal affairs, before releasing the advertisements and the official job description, or beginning any hiring for the position.