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The Paladin

Furman University's Student Newspaper

The Paladin

Furman University's Student Newspaper

The Paladin

Campus Responses to Sexual Assault, Part 2: Confidential Advocates

Students express need for confidential support before they approach Title IX. Furman’s Peer Institutions offer this type of resource.
Nath Kapoor/The Paladin
Furman’s Student Life office

Five students and alumni were interviewed for this report, all of whom described positive experiences using support measures from the Title IX office. Two of these interviewees who requested formal disciplinary processes from Title IX both reported negative experiences. This report will refer to those students and alumni as ‘persons.’   

One person, who enacted a no contact order, said, “Melissa [Nichols] did a good job of explaining processes and alternative resolutions, and my experience with this reflected positively on the office.” Students and alumni who requested information about resources from the office also described positive experiences. Another person commended the office’s Peer Liaison Program, which trains students to understand options for victims and assigns those students as confidential resources. The peer liaisons are not mandated to report incidents to Nichols.

“Information can be lost in translation between students and the Title IX office,” one person said. “The peer liaisons explain your options without you feeling the fear of coming forward and reporting.”  

Interviewees also described feeling unsupported by the Title IX coordinators because of the compliance, reporting and investigation protocols to which those employees are bound. “I wish [Melissa Nichols] had been able to offer me more options, not just you can report or not report,” one person said. They went on to explain, “Like, if you’re having family issues about reporting, here’s someone you can talk to. We always throw around the number for the counseling center. But when you’re in that stage, the counseling center can seem daunting.”  

Another person said, “It’s very overwhelming being read your options because I was very emotional in [Melissa Nichols’s] office and didn’t know what I was doing. I went to her for help but was met with stark business. I wanted at least a ‘it’s going to be okay,’ you know. I know it’s business and you have protocols, but some trauma response would have been helpful.”  

Mandatory Reporting and Confidentiality

The university’s policy for mandatory reporting is universal, meaning every employee (besides counselors, chaplains and nurses) must report incidents to the university within 24 hours. The university should then become aware that an incident occurred shortly after a student divulges this incident to a mandatory reporter. The student should expect remote contact from the Title IX office via email and can decide how to proceed.

The desire for confidential staff resources who are not mandatory reporters was a trend among all people interviewed, who expressed unanimous discontent for the Counseling Center and Spiritual Life Office (both confidential resources) in the context of healing from cases of sexual violence. One person described their experience with the Counseling Center as unhelpful, and the university’s method for “checking the box” on survivor advocacy options. 

“It’s important to have an older person to talk to without criticism or censure, and Title IX removed that from college campuses,” Dr. Cosby said, referring to faculty and staff who are now mandated to report incidents. “Young women would come talk to me before the regulations changed because other students are not an adequate source of help, they aren’t professionals with professional knowledge.” 

People who initiated a formal disciplinary process described the hardships of the process and its toll on everyday life, schoolwork and relationships. “What I observe with both complainants and respondents is from the moment a complaint is filed and it’s going through a formal process, those can take a few months and that’s hard,” Dr. Cassidy said. “That’s hard when you’re living on a campus and you’re seeing friends and people are asking questions.” 

Several people commented on positive experiences with one of the University’s Student Life Staff, Sarah Tobin, who serves as an advocate for students involved in the formal disciplinary process. “My role is to help students navigate through the process and connect them to other resources on and off-campus,” said Tobin. “I also work with students who have experienced sexual violence but who are not involved in a formal process.” Tobin is a mandatory reporter. 

“Sarah Tobin was the one good thing that came out of this,” one person involved in the disciplinary process said. “She was the only person that was just willing to sit and listen and not ask me these questions that felt like a trap for me to slip up.” Two others described Tobin as the most helpful resource on campus, and one person said, “I felt comfortable talking about my situation more than I ever did with the counseling center.”   

Tobin serves as an additional layer of support for students who are already communicating with Title IX as a liaison to other offices of academic and personal support. “My main goal is to do everything within reason to support a student’s academic, physical, emotional, and psychological success as they continue their Furman journey,” she said. 


Other Schools Have More Confidential Advocates

Interviewees for this report largely recognized the University’s improvements in resources for students involved in sexual assault cases and disciplinary processes. “The University has no control over regulations imposed by the state and the federal government,” one person said. “But they have complete control over resources given to students facing those procedures.” 

Tobin, who previously worked directly with survivors of sexual assault, provides support for students already involved in the disciplinary process. However, Tobin is a mandatory reporter, and interviewees expressed desires for on campus, trauma informed confidential advocates available before Title IX or FUPD become aware of incidents.  

Unlike several of its comparable peer institutions, the University does not currently employ confidential advocates beyond The Counseling Center, Office of Spiritual Life, and Student Health Center.  

Of 15 peer institutions listed on the University’s website, three do not follow universal mandatory reporting standards. Centre College of Kentucky, Wake Forest University, and Washington and Lee University operate under selective reporting standards, meaning not all faculty and staff are listed as mandatory reporters.  

5 of the 15 listed peer institutions employ staff (beyond counselors, chaplains, and healthcare workers) trained to respond to victims of sexual violence as confidential advocates: 

The nearest resource to these available at Furman is the Associate Director of Student Success and Advocacy, a role currently filled by Sarah Tobin. She, and the University, would make the above list if her status was confidential advocate rather than mandatory reporter.

Interviewees identified mistrust and misinformation as the biggest barriers in efforts to heal from sexual violence on campus. Confidential advocates offer opportunities for minimizing victim re-traumatization while students make decisions before engaging with Title IX and criminal procedures. 

6 of the 15 listed peer institutions also offer spaces designed for support, prevention and education on topics of sexual violence:  

Elon University’s Gender & LGBTQIA Center website describes their additional resource as follows: “A confidential advocate can listen to your experience, discuss options and resources, and help support you through processes should you choose to engage with them.” Furman’s nearest equivalent to these offices is SHARP (Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention) Committee, an extracurricular board composed of students, faculty, and staff. SHARP’s website contains minimal and outdated information. 

Associate Vice President for Human Resources Sharen Beaulieu commented on the University’s movement to add resources for victims since the Dear Colleague Letter of 2011. “It’s a constant evolution,” she said. “When students say, ‘we want X’, it gets added.” 

Interviewees voiced desire for more confidential victim advocates employed by Furman in this report. The University has expressed a commitment to evolving to meet student needs in its Diversity Statement, which reads: “The university is committed to scrutinizing its practices and abolishing those that undermine the values of diversity and equality, and is committed to expanding those that cultivate an environment that encourages the success of students, staff, and faculty.”

Last Week, Part 1: How The Title IX Office Works

Next Week, Part 3: Furman University Police Department handles criminal sexual assault cases, students report revictimization by former officer

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