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Speak Up, Speak Out: Federal Grant Empowers Survivors of Sexual Assault at Clark

Numerous paper hands cover the stark white walls of the office. Each represents a member of the Clark College community affected by sexual assault and abuse. Paper t-shirts recounting the stories of survivors flutter gently overhead on a clothesline.

In the center of it all stands Tavish Bell, herself a survivor, who has worked tirelessly empowering survivors to share their stories and educate others. Now, her efforts are starting to pay off.

In 2017, Clark received a three-year, $300,000 grant from the Department of Justice through the Violence Against Women Act, aimed to reduce sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking on college campuses. Bell, the program coordinator with the office of student affairs, started a number of training initiatives designed to educate Clark community members and positively change campus culture.

“We know that people are getting hurt. Looking at numbers and statistics here in Clark County and comparing that to our own campus statistics, we know that people on campus are not coming forward and getting the help and support they need,” Bell said.

The goal of the grant is to see an increase in reporting through the education initiatives and by creating a safe environment for survivors to come forward, she said. “We want the people interacting with survivors to be trauma informed and survivor centered,” Bell said.

In Fall 2018, collaborating with Clark’s Title IX team, Bell introduced an optional module to College 101 classes about consent and bystander intervention. The module focuses on defining consent as well as exploring the many forms of sexual assault, abuse and what they may look like.  

"[We're] trying to move away from that shame and that stigma of 'oh it's so embarrassing' and 'it's my fault'...you can wear your scars openly. That can be a sign of strength." Tavish Bell (Matthew Phillips/The Indy)
“[We’re] trying to move away from that shame and that stigma of ‘oh it’s so embarrassing’ and ‘it’s my fault’…you can wear your scars openly. That can be a sign of strength.” Tavish Bell (Matthew Phillips/The Indy)
Instructors use the definition of consent found in the Clark College student code of conduct, as well as the Planned Parenthood-created acronym F.R.I.E.S., as a shorthand way to remember the elements of consent. (See Sidebar)

Informing students about consent goes beyond the basics of ‘yes and no’. Consent is often more complicated in practice, she said.

Bell’s focus remains on encouraging students to come forward to report their experiences with abuse and seek help even if they have convinced themselves that their experience was “not that bad.” Any experience someone has had with assault is a valid reason to report the incident, she said.

It doesn’t have to be the stereotypical rape at knifepoint behind a dumpster,” she said. “Anybody’s experience, with any of these things, is that bad.”

“If there are things at school or in your personal life or just in general that are preventing you from feeling safe and comfortable and focused at school, that’s a problem… you can get support for that,” she said.

Since the introduction of the module, there has been a significant increase in Title IX reporting at Clark.

Stefani Coverson, Clark’s Title IX coordinator and vice president of human resources, said there has been a 68 percent increase in reporting from the 2017-2018 academic year to the 2018-2019 academic year, so far.  

In Winter 2019, Bell worked with student leadership groups on campus the peer educator program. The 11 person team of ASCC, Phi Theta Kappa and other students serve as volunteer instructors in College 101 classes.

“I never really had a discussion on this in my classes,” peer educator Deanna Thompson said. “I had questions of my own that I thought would be good to teach others once I knew the answers.”

Unlike faculty and staff, students are not mandatory reporters, which creates a safer environment for students to open up about their experiences.

“We live in a society of hiding in the shadows. This way we can start, even if we reach one or two [people], it matters hugely,” honor society member Ryan Oakes said. “Whatever’s happened to that person, that stays with you for life. You may find ways to deal with it, but it stays with you for life, you never forget it.”

“So that’s what we need to get past, that it’s okay to speak up, it’s okay to speak out.”

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