WISE of the Upper Valley is helping Dartmouth College support victims of sexual assault, dating and interpersonal violence
Peggy O’Neil and Heather Lindkvist hadn’t known each other very long before they became key allies in an experimental initiative to fight sexual assault and harassment at Dartmouth College. The two women head up the Dartmouth/WISE partnership, which brings the expertise and confidentiality of an advocacy organization into the auspices of an institution that has gotten very serious about this issue.
O’Neil is the Executive Director of WISE of the Upper Valley, a community-based non-profit that provides crisis and ongoing support for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. A community stalwart for 46 years, WISE is both an advocate for victim survivors and a resource in preventing sexual violence, including educational programming on healthy relationships, consent, and body autonomy.
O’Neil said the organization had long-standing, informal ties to Dartmouth, mostly through discreet relationships with individuals. Given their capacity and expertise in this area, O’Neil wanted to better support students and staff with a more visible and physical presence on campus.
As Dartmouth’s Title IX Coordinator and Clery Act Compliance Officer, Heather Lindkvist oversees the federal and state mandates concerning sex discrimination, gender-based harassment, and sexual misconduct, including sexual assault, dating and domestic violence. The medical cultural anthropologist came to Dartmouth in 2014 well-versed in the fine lines of these laws, but she hoped to do more than regulate these problems.
“I said to people when I came here, here’s the compliance act, but here’s how I want to construct this work so it’s first and foremost about our obligation to our community: to make it safe, to make it equitable, and to make sure everyone feels supported,” she said.
Having worked with a community crisis center at a previous institution, Lindkvist quickly saw the value of forming a partnership with WISE. She had the strong support of Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon, who made the aggressive addressment of gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault part of the school’s initiative, “Moving Dartmouth Forward.”
According to the web site, Moving Dartmouth Forward is “an initiative aimed at eliminating high-risk behavior and increasing inclusivity while strengthening Dartmouth’s longstanding commitment to leadership in teaching and learning.”
Some believe Moving Dartmouth Forward is also an attempt to move Dartmouth away from the perception that the Ivy League school, in idyllic Hanover, New Hampshire, is more a place of privilege than inclusion. The effort has produced some of the most innovative student affairs programming in the country on discrimination, high-risk binge drinking, and issues relating to Title IX. Hanlon’s stated goal in this area is “to eradicate sexual assault on campus, and promote community awareness of sexual violence and gender-based harassment.”
A year ago last spring, Dartmouth and WISE signed an agreement to extend WISE services directly to the Dartmouth campus. Dartmouth is now funding a new, on-campus position for a WISE employee to work directly with students, faculty, and staff as a campus advocate. This employee will continue to partner on a range of issues including sexual assault prevention programming and education on campus.
“Now we’re building capacity together and sharing the best we have to offer with each other,” said Lindkvist.
Part of what WISE can offer is confidentiality for people affected by sexual violence, harassment, or stalking. Under Title IX, college employees with information about a sexual assault are mandated to alert the Title IX Coordinator in a way that Lindkvist likens to notification of suicidal ideation. This means that anyone from a dining hall worker, faculty member, or counselor can be subpoenaed in an investigation. As an outside resource, the WISE employee cannot be.
“We are solely there for the person who has been impacted by the violence, and we’re going to take our cue from them,” said O’Neil. “We’re not going to tell anyone anything unless they want us to.”
WISE’s presence on campus gives individuals in the Dartmouth community close proximity to assistance as well as confidentiality. For people involved in sexual violence or harassment, this two-part advantage is critical. Victim/survivors of sexual assault are dealing with trauma as well as facing a number of decisions, from reporting someone they likely know, to seeking counseling, to navigating the university and legal systems surrounding that decision.
Delaney Anderson is the WISE Campus Advocate. “To be able to think through so many questions in a confidential space with someone who doesn’t have a motive other than ‘I want to be here with you’ is really valuable,” she said.
Anderson acknowledges that victims of sexual harassment and relationship violence, particularly in closed communities like colleges, are often hesitant to report an incident.
“There are so many reasons survivors are hesitant to report, including fear of not being believed [or] fear of being blamed,” said Anderson. “College campuses can be complicating factors in those hindrances. You eat, sleep, socialize, and go to work all in the same location with people you know. That means that incidents of sexual assault will likely involve people you know.”
Anderson believes this dynamic only makes sexual assault on college campuses that much harder to address.
“There’s this sense that at college, things are complicated and that there are a lot of factors making this issue ‘grey’ as opposed to what it is: an act of sexual violence,” she said.
In the past, colleges and universities have not been given high marks for their handling of campus sexual assault; they’ve been seen as more concerned with containing these incidences rather than supporting those involved.
According to the Association of American Universities 2014 Campus Climate Survey, when asked what might happen when a student reports an incident of sexual assault or misconduct to a university official, half of the responders said that it was very or extremely unlikely the university would conduct a fair investigation.
Lindkvist believes that the perception that colleges were passive or clandestine in their dealings with these issues is all the more reason to go straight at reporting barriers. “If there is a perception in our community that the institution and administrators have somehow failed reporting persons in the past, it behooves us to think about how we address that in a way that gives our constituencies the resources they need in a way that feels most comfortable for them,” she said.
Whether or not they report an incident, O’Neil and Lindkvist agree that helping people to come forward to get the support they need is the primary goal of the WISE/Dartmouth partnership and is the reason why it has been instrumental for both individuals and the institution.
“We see smart and capable young people leaving campus because they’ve been victimized and feel they can’t stay. We don’t want that to happen,” said O’Neil.
A confluence of factors including high profile cases resulting in protests and resignations, pressure from the Obama administration, and an emerging, vocal network of victim/survivors have produced a national cry for “enough is enough” when it comes to sexual assault on campus. For people like Lindkvist and O’Neil, this is an opportunity for real change.
“Victims of sexual violence haven’t fared well in the justice system, criminal or civil,” said O’Neil. “This work needs to be done across systems and in communities. One of the opportunities the college and university systems have is they might be able to inform the criminal and civil systems.”
Lindkvist sees the national spotlight on sexual assault and gender discrimination on campus as emblematic of something larger about the need for respect and inclusion.
“The hope and opportunity is [to] make our environment safe and welcoming,” she said. It’s not fun for kids to be harmed or live in these ridiculous gender roles that just don’t work anymore. When they come to us at this stage in their lives, we want to make sure they will have a good sense of who they are as human beings. There is a lot of competition here, which I think is legitimate, but it shouldn’t be about who they are as people and what their gender roles should be.”