Student government starts support group for sexual assault survivors
Emily McConville | Friday, October 7, 2016
Last Friday, a confidential support group for survivors of sexual assault met for the first time at the University Counseling Center (UCC).
Senior Grace Watkins, who organized the group, said it is meant to help survivors get to know each other, gain access to other resources and share information.
“A high percentage of female students at Notre Dame experience sexual misconduct in some form, but very few know each other, so I thought a support group would give these students an opportunity to share their experiences with each other and know that they are not alone in many ways,” she said. “A lot of the things that feel unusual about your own recovery and healing is actually not unusual, and you can find that out by talking to others.”
Watkins, who is the student body government’s policy chief and has advocated to the University on behalf of sexual assault victims, said she began to look into starting a support group after Notre Dame released its 2015 Campus Climate survey and after she learned about similar groups at other universities, such as Columbia’s No Red Tape.
Watkins worked with Gender Relations Center (GRC), Notre Dame’s Title IX office and the UCC to decide on a time, place and model. Student government then advertised the group, which is set to meet every other Friday from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. in the 3rd-floor conference room in Saint Liam Hall.
Similar programs existed at Notre Dame in the past — over the past several years, the St. Joseph County Family Justice Center periodically organized Out of the Shadows, a support group on campus, but that group required at least five participants and was not available every year, said Christine Caron Gebhardt, director of the GRC and co-chair of the Committee to Prevent Sexual Assault.
Gebhardt said she and deputy Title IX coordinator Heather Ryan had been looking for a new model, especially after the 2015 Campus Climate survey results were released. When Watkins brought her idea for a support group to them, they decided on sessions that were staff-facilitated but student-driven.
The new group, which does not yet have a name, is facilitated by a counselor at the UCC who specializes in helping students through trauma, though Gebhardt said students largely decide the topics of discussion.
“The idea for students is that you come and go as you need,” she said. “You don’t have to commit to a 12-week program or a 5-week program. If it’s a difficult week for you and you need to go to the support group, great. If one person shows up or 15 people show up, that’s what it is.
“If you don’t need to go or you’re not in a place where that’s where you are, that’s fine. We want it to be about the choice for the survivor.”
Watkins said while, unlike Columbia’s No Red Tape, Notre Dame’s group is not focused on advocacy, the group could be a source of information on rights and resources for sexual assault survivors.
“When seeking a response through Title IX or with the county, what you think is just a bad experience is actually a Title IX violation, and it’s hard to know that without a lot of background knowledge of how these cases are supposed to be run,” she said. “The best way to do that is to compare experiences and see if lots of people are having the same problems and if it is, then it’s really important to know.”
Watkins said last Friday’s first session was well-attended, and the group’s trajectory will depend on what its members decide they need to heal.
“I would recommend this group to anyone who’s experienced sexual violence and feels like they’re alone in that, because they’re really not, and there are a lot of people who care and want to make things better together,” she said. “The group is just one way of doing that.”