The University of Florida today announced plans to move toward a more proactive, preventive stance to address sexual assault and harassment as part of its ongoing efforts to improve the culture surrounding those issues.
Previously known as the Title IX Office, UF’s Office of Accessibility and Gender Equity has sought to expand its role in recent years beyond its directive to document and investigate incidents of assault and harassment. With the adage “Culture of Care,” the office has become a resource for those who seek to educate themselves about healthy interactions and the avoidance of harm.
Too frequently, students who walked into the office, which is led by Assistant Vice President Russell Froman, had been physically or emotionally harmed in some way. Under the direction of UF President Kent Fuchs, the university has expanded the office’s offerings beyond the basic expectation that the university comply with the Title IX mandate, the federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities.
Froman, who is also the university’s ADA and Title IX coordinator, said the office aims to prevent harm from occurring in the first place by becoming a place to visit outside of when students have just been hurt.
“The goal is for everyone to understand what constitutes a healthy relationship and how to avoid the harmful experiences that may come their way during their time at the university,” Froman said.
Listening to Students
Every few years, the university conducts a sexual assault climate survey. It aims to combat sexual assault and misconduct by allowing students to anonymously share their experiences with officials.
The most recent survey, conducted in 2019, left UF officials concerned. Nearly 1 in 3 undergraduate women reported nonconsensual sexual contact by force or inability to consent. Officials note fewer than 2,000 students responded to the survey. Also, it took about an hour to fill out, likely contributing to a lower participation rate.
Still, officials could not ignore the results. Ultimately, it led to the hiring of Jessica Baker, the engagement and prevention coordinator at the Office for Accessibility and Gender Equity.
Baker was hired just weeks before the pandemic struck in Florida. Yet, it has not prevented her from spending the past year building the Gender Equity Student Advisory Board that includes students from throughout the institution – from final-semester graduate students to first-year undergraduates. Its goal is to hear directly from students what is happening on campus and how the university can better meet their needs.
“Having feedback and engagement from students is critical,” Baker said. “Their voices and ideas need to be at the forefront of these efforts.”
Concepts that have emerged from the student advisory panel include:
- Safety as encompassing both people and spaces
- Importance of normalizing boundary setting in relationships
- Need for universal understanding of the gender spectrum
- Ideas about how the university can better address behaviors that can lead to violence
Froman and Baker said their office is working on several ways to respond.
Certainly, addressing most of the issues can be done through education, Baker said. New, comprehensive training will be offered to incoming students that will focus on defining different behaviors that are identified as sexual harassment. The training also will address other issues, such as bystander intervention.
Further, the office is bringing a new app to campus this fall that will provide information and resources for those affected by interpersonal or relationship violence to get help and understand their options. The app will feature several tools including a noise alarm and a GPS function that will share the user’s location with a chosen number of people. Additionally, the app will have a function that will allow the user to generate a fake text message or phone call that will allow them to remove themselves from a precarious situation.
In addition, the Office for Accessibility and Gender Equity plans to work with local bars and restaurants and the Alachua County Coalition Against Sexual Violence to educate community members on how to respond to one of the app’s offerings: the “Angel Drink” function.
For those unfamiliar with the term, the “angel drink” or “angel shot” was born at a Tampa Bay bar that sought to offer patrons a safe way to get out of a bad date. Patrons who request the shot or drink, are escorted to their car by bartenders, according to the Tampa Bay Times. If it’s ordered with ice, an Uber or taxi will be summoned. Order it with lime, and the police are called.
Students using the app will have the option to select the drink and present it to bartenders as something they want without having to voice its name.
“It’s really important to have that relationship with area establishments because it allows us to share with each other what trends we’re seeing,” Baker said. “Together, we can work on how to make things better for everyone involved.”
‘One Love’ at UF
The student advisory panel comprises 19 students. Among them is Caroline “Carlie” Hellmann, the co-founder and acting president of UF’s One Love club, a student organization dedicated to educating students on the signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships.
“Society teaches us that love is the most important thing,” Hellman said. “But no one teaches us how to love. No one teaches just healthy day-to-day interactions with the people we love.”
The club’s local chapter launched in Spring 2020 at the height of the pandemic. Its lessons are applicable to all relationships, whether they’re romantic or platonic, Hellman said.
The Office of Accessibility and Gender Equity has facilitated workshops with students and OneLove at UF. It’s a monumental step for the university to include the club and its members as part of the advisory group, Hellman said.
“I do think it’s pretty great that UF is giving a platform to communities that have been affected by many of these problems,” Hellman said. “I think UF is moving in the right direction. There’s definitely room to continue this growth.
Well aware of the need for continued growth, the Office of Accessibility and Gender Equity is launching an entirely new library of training courses for students, faculty and staff.
Other recent changes include a website redesign that makes it simpler for those who have been harmed to file a report. The reporting process has also changed.
Previously, filing a report triggered an automatic investigation that was very intrusive to the person who had already been harmed. To be sure, some victims seek punishment for perpetrators, Froman said. But some just want to prevent the harm from happening to someone else.
Not requiring that a hurt person undergo a formal, often intrusive, investigation can at least help university officials determine if the individual who caused the harm was deliberate in their actions or if it was a one-time incident. It also allows the university to pursue an informal resolution, such as offering a consent course or alcohol education, if that is what the reportee seeks.
And, of course, continued education.
“Prevention is rooted in making sure that everyone routinely gets active and continued consent,” Baker said. “Making sure people understand that concept is our priority.”
University of Florida News Center https://www.news.ufl.edu