April marks national Sexual Assault Awareness Month

As early as the 1970s, women in England held Take Back the Night marches protesting against street violence they encountered at night. Since then, word spread and other countries took to the movement, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.

Decades later, in 2009, President Barack Obama officially declared April Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Today, sexual assault has become a common topic among colleges and universities, with Allegheny being no exception. Allegheny’s recently appointed Title IX Coordinator Gilly Ford, along with other members of the community, organized a series of events in conjunction with SAAM.

The next event in conjunction with SAAM will be held on Tuesday, April 19 in the Tippie Alumni Center. The Title IX office, Allegheny Student Government and the Center for Political Participation will screen “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary film focusing on sexual assault across college campuses. A panel discussion will be held following the screening, and counseling services will be available as well.

The hesitation of diving immediately into the search then was just the timing and also when we did do a search for Katie, the pool had not been particularly strong.

— Sue Stuebner

“I think it’s critical that the college is always talking about awareness and prevention related to sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, etc. Because nationally April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it gives us a great opportunity to put that programming in. I don’t believe it should just occur in April, but because of the highlight on the month it gives us the opportunity to have a spotlight on it,” Ford said.

Since former Title IX Coordinator Katie Pope’s departure in August 2015, Ford has held the interim position. On April 11, 2016, Executive Vice President Sue Stuebner sent a campus-wide email announcing Ford’s permanent assignment as the Title IX coordinator.

Initially the college planned to launch a national search to fill the position, but Stuebner said they never did a formal search.

“The hesitation of diving immediately into the search then was just the timing and also when we did do a search for Katie, the pool had not been particularly strong,” Stuebner said. “It’s been encouraging and impressive to see the proliferation of full-time Title IX coordinators across colleges and universities which I see is a really positive thing, but the industry hasn’t kept up with preparing people for that.”

Ford’s success as interim and a need for continuity in the program led Stuebner to recommend Ford as the college’s Title IX coordinator.

“A search might have helped some people feel more confident in the process, but having seen Gilly in the role and working with her closely, I felt very confident that committing to her as our official Title IX coordinator would serve the institution well,” Stuebner said.

Ford is excited knowing that she will serve in the position on a longer term, seeing her goals and plans continue forward.

“And I think it helps, too, to have confirmation that this becomes permanent,” Ford said. “I think then that helps in terms of visibility for the program, too, for people to know that I’m going to be the individual in this position, and they get to start to know me and associate me with this work and hopefully that spreads some awareness, too.”

In addition to her Title IX duties, Ford has also worked to implement more awareness activities and is co-instructing a group study course with Amara Geffen, professor of art. The course is entitled “Deconstructing Myths of Rape through Performance Art Actions” and has 10 students enrolled.

“I’m so impressed by the students in the class. They are so passionate about this issue and so committed,” Ford said.

Ford said the students’ class years range from freshmen to senior, which she believes adds more to the topic of sexual assault awareness.

“Sometimes what happens is we have students who get involved and just as they start to implement things, they graduate,” Ford said. “So the nice thing about having a variety of students in our class is…there are students who will carry on the work throughout the time that they’re here. And then I hope that along the way they’ll find some underclassmen who are interested in the work and carry it along so we have consistency in whatever the initiatives are we decide to do.”

Emma Weissenfels, ’19, joined the course after she learned about it through the theater department.

“I really have been wanting to do something with social change but also theater, and so when I saw the course I thought what a wonderful way to be a positive influence on our campus society while also getting to incorporate performance into my life still,” Weissenfels said.

As a first-year student, Weissenfels hopes to continue her work with sexual assault awareness throughout her college career.

“It’s definitely influenced me and given me a springboard that I didn’t think I’d get,” Weissenfels said. “I’d like to continue implementing what I’ve learned here in real life.”

Xiaoyu Zhu, ’18, is also enrolled in Ford and Geffen’s co-taught course. Zhu acknowledges that the topic of sexual assault is not a “normal” conversation in her home country of China, but that awareness is getting better.

“I think this class affected me a lot especially the way I think of sexual assault and sexual violence to help me build a more complete view,” Zhu said. “It kind of teach me how to bring the knowledge from the book, from the article into the action and into the real life, to the campus.”