Rape crisis center reaches out after #MeToo

Katie McCreedy

As dozens of women have stepped forward accusing prominent film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, the #MeToo campaign has swept social media, encouraging women to share their experiences with sexual violence by re-posting the hashtag.

Volunteers and staff at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, or BARCC, have seen an increase in sexual violence reports in response to the Weinstein allegations and social media campaign. Danielle Dottor, a second-year criminal justice and human services double major at Northeastern, is a hotline counselor at BARCC.

“Since the Harvey Weinstein information was released, the number of people seeking BARCC services has gone up,” Dottor said. “Not because more assaults are happening, but because it’s becoming more talked about right now and that’s bringing things up for people.”

According to a 2016 study by a task force from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commision conducted a study, at least 25 percent of women experience sexual harassment in the workplace. BARCC offers a variety of free services to support victims of sexual violence in addition to free training for anyone who wants to learn about it. They also offer a hotline service for those affected by sexual violence and support colleges, including Northeastern, in their efforts to combat sexual violence on campuses.

BARCC Executive Director Gina Scaramella said she feels it is imperative for college students to discuss sexual violence topics now more than ever.

“It’s not other people who are at risk for sexual violence, but it’s us,” Scaramella said. “So if everyone wants the campus to be a safer place, everyone needs to be considering that and be considering their rights.”

Scaramella said it is difficult for students to grasp the effectiveness of their campus’ sexual violence support unless they have experienced it themselves. In terms of judging a student’s own school’s support system, Scaramella highlighted types of warning signs for unsupportive campus cultures.

“A campus that really runs around the fraternity culture is going to be a higher-risk culture, there’s just no way around that,” Scaramella said. “Schools that tend to be in that hyper-masculine framework tend to do a worse job at preventing sexual assault.”

The Jeanne Clery Act requires all universities to publish an annual crime report detailing the number of reported cases of sexual violence that occur on campus, however these numbers are often far from reality. The majority of students do not report sexual violence when it happens to them.

According to a two decade-long study by the U.S. Department of Justice that ended in 2013, 80 percent of rape and sexual assault cases for college students go unreported to the police. This makes it more difficult to gauge the prevalence of sexual violence at any one campus. The American Association of University Women also found that 89 percent of colleges reported zero rape cases in 2015, which indicates that many students may still feel uncomfortable reporting sexual violence to their universities.

Even then, studies conducted on college campuses reporting these statistics are often school-specific. Percentages at one university might not correlate to percentages at another university with a different student population, in a different area, with different sexual harassment prevention programs in place.

“It really does fall on students and parents to look at a campus in terms of its cultural attributes,” Scaramella said.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also rolled back Obama-era guidelines on handling sexual violence cases on college campuses this fall. The guidelines obligate universities to investigate sexual violence reports in-depth. This decision and the #MeToo movement have reopened conversations about sexual violence on campus and in the workplace.

Almost all Northeastern students embark on a six-month co-op experience where they are assimilated into a workplace. While it’s unlikely that co-op students will experience sexual harassment in the workplace, Scaramella said it is prevalent in many workplace environments.

“If you have your boss or somebody else in the organization saying things that are making you uncomfortable, take note,” Scaramella said.

As the Education Department reconsiders its expectations from colleges for investigating sexual assault and repeals the “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the Obama Administration, which spelled out thorough guidelines for universities to follow in sexual violence investigations, many students are now unsure about their Title IX rights. The “Dear Colleague” letter required schools to take immediate action upon being notified of a sexual violence case, to appoint a Title IX Coordinator and to report cases annually.

Representatives from Northeastern’s Title IX office were unavailable for comment.

“I know that my Title IX rights guidelines are changing, but I’m not sure how,” said Catherine DiGangi, a first-year health science major.

Other students said it is hard to know how DeVos’ decision will affect Northeastern and themselves.

“I know that Northeastern wants to make sure that their students are safe, but I don’t know too much about Northeastern’s view on these guidelines,” said Tina Zheng, a third-year pharmacy major.

Scaramella said response programs at colleges can vary, but students should report anything they feel may defy their Title IX rights.

“If you are truly uncomfortable with what is happening in one of your classes with a professor, talk to someone at the school and figure out what to do,” Scaramella said.

Northeastern’s Title IX

Scaramella also suggested students read and review the text of Title IX to gain a better understanding of their rights. The American Civil Liberties Union offers an explanation of student rights on their website.

BARCC offers a variety of services for survivors of sexual violence based on volunteer programs. Volunteers must dedicate extensive time: They participate in a 40-hour training program, bi-weekly meetings and weekly shifts.

“It’s a 24-hour crisis hotline that anyone can call for issues related to sexual violence,” Dottor said.

During these calls, volunteers focus on helping victims — or the loved ones of victims — combat an emotional crisis. Volunteers give advice for stress management, allow the callers to vent about their experiences and help advise them on the steps forward for reporting the issue. BARCC also offers legal advocacy and case management for students.

That outpouring of emotion and online discussion of sexual violence and its effects that accompanied the #MeToo campaign is encouraging people to seek out BARCC services.

Regardless of the influx, BARCC has an extensive system in place to ensure every call is answered. If a hotline counselor isn’t available, the call is transferred to other staff members. Northeastern actively encourages students to utilize BARCC’s services. On the bottom of many university flyers related to Title IX posted bathrooms and hallways, the BARCC hotline number is listed.

Students can also get involved with the fight against sexual violence on college campuses by volunteering at BARCC.

“BARCC will always have time for you,” Dottor said. “We’re meant for you. Every call gets covered.”