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Biweekly meeting supports survivors of assault

| Friday, December 9, 2016

A confidential support group for survivors of sexual assault has been meeting regularly at the University Counseling Center (UCC), and it has been renewed for next semester.

“It’s really nice to have friends on campus who share similar experiences with me,” senior Grace Watkins, who organized the group, said. “It’s provided a really comforting support network for each other.”

Watkins said the group has also received a grant from the McDonald Center for Student Well-Being for a self-care night.

Watkins, student government’s policy adviser and an advocate for sexual assault victims, worked with the UCC and the Gender Relations Center (GRC) to start the group, which meets every other Friday at 3:30 p.m., in early October. The group is meant to help survivors get to know each other, gain access to other resources and share information. It is open women and men at Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross.

“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,” Watkins said in October. “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 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 the 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 meets in the third-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, Christine Caron Gebhardt, director of the GRC and co-chair of the Committee to Prevent Sexual Assault, said in October.

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 group 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 the group has been beneficial.

“Increasingly, we’re becoming each other’s first phone call,” she said.

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About Emily McConville

Emily McConville is a news writer and photographer for the Observer. She is a senior studying history and Italian with a minor in journalism. She is from Louisville, KY and lives off-campus.

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