PATH to Care Center Highlights Prevention of Sexual Assault on Campus Amid Emerging Allegations

        The PATH to Care Center, a part of the Berkeley community for three years now, is an organization dedicated to prevention, advocacy, training, and healing regarding issues of sexual violence. In the midst of repeated allegations of sexual assault and druggings in the Greek community during the past three years as well as rising complaints regarding the university’s handling of sexual misconduct cases, the PATH to Care Center provides various forms of confidential and empowering support to the campus community.

        According to a campus-wide email sent out by Chancellor Carol T. Christ in February, UC Berkeley entered into a Resolution Agreement with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in response to growing concerns from the community. Under this agreement, the university will change and clarify existing policies regarding sexual assault and violence in order to better handle sexual assault cases and make Berkeley’s campus a safer place.

        Repeated complaints of sexual assault have also been prevalent in the Greek community during the last few years. PATH to Care Prevention Program Manager Elizabeth Wilmerding explained that the Interfraternity Council (IFC) and Panhellenic Council (PHC), the two bodies that lead most of the fraternities and sororities on campus, have reached out to PATH to Care in order to draft a joint policy responding to and preventing sexual violence and harassment. She has been meeting regularly with leaders from the two councils.

        Confidential Care Advocate Tiffany Hsiang noted that there are many barriers to reporting sexual violence, and it is often difficult to determine whether what is perceived as an uptick of reports or allegations is a reflection of more situations occurring or more people being able to come forward about past incidents. She stressed the importance of the PATH to Care Center’s confidentiality, allowing for a low-stakes conversation to ascertain the best plan of action for survivors.

        “When somebody has experienced these forms of harm, it is a situation where they didn’t get to have a choice or control, so it’s always so important for us to give that control and that choice back,” Hsiang said. “When we’re hearing these allegations coming forward, we always try to make ourselves a resource to the leadership within those communities and to people who might want to know or get support even if they’re not interested in reporting.”

       Providing prevention and support services to any individual impacted by sexual violence and harassment, including campus affiliates not directly associated with the university, the PATH to Care Center works with issues related to sexual assault, intimate partner violence, stalking, and sexual harassment. However, while the center often appears to be catered towards survivors, the PATH to Care team is covering increasingly significant ground with regards to prevention of sexual violence on campus. Wilmerding emphasized the importance of distinguishing true prevention from risk reduction that focuses on personal safety strategies.

       “Focusing only on risk reduction strategies means that we’re putting the blame on the potential victim if something happens,” Wilmerding said. “If we tell people in sororities that it’s up to them to watch their drinks at parties, that’s a great safety strategy, but what that is doing is saying if you don’t watch your drink, or step away for a second, or hand it to somebody that you think you can trust and they put something in your drink, then we’re saying that it’s your fault, that you were not paying enough attention.”

       She explained that the goal behind focusing on prevention and less on risk reduction is to redirect attention to educating the people who are going to potentially perpetrate harm in order to reduce that kind of behavior, as well as the bystanders who are able to intervene before an incident escalates or occurs. Bystander intervention is defined as the interruption of potential harm or violence by someone witnessing an incident, and can be done in three simple steps: recognizing a situation as potentially harmful, deciding to act, and intervening effectively and safely. Wilmerding explained that the PATH to Care Center encourages early intervention and ensuring campus members feel well-resourced and supported to do so. She suggests thinking in advanced about ways to break down individual barriers to intervening so bystanders feel ready to act in the moment.

       “I think personal safety strategies are important and we would never tell anybody not to do them, but I really do think that for us to achieve a violence-free campus and community, we need to switch the conversation to help people make sure that their friends aren’t being harmed and that their friends aren’t perpetrating harm, whether that be on purpose or accidentally,” Wilmerding said.

 
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       Prevention is a multi-pronged effort, including aspects of healing and support as well as primary prevention and culture change. Wilmerding explained that she works to identify what values campus communities bring to the table and how those strengths can be leveraged to create a vision for the future of the campus.

       “I love working on the prevention side of our work because it allows me to be so optimistic,” Wilmerding said. “You can’t do this work if you don’t believe that we will be able to see a day when violence does not exist on our campus.”

       However, the overwhelming value of personal safety strategies in contemporary discussions of sexual violence can produce the unintentional effects of self-blame and self-doubt, Hsiang explained. One of the most common reactions seen in survivors, self-blame is an important consideration in sensitively supporting survivors of sexual assault.

       “We know that one of the best ways we can support somebody is by believing them and by treating them well and also recognize that because we live in a culture that has trained us to blame victims, to say well ‘why didn’t you do this’ or ‘you should have done this’; that’s sometimes the biggest barrier,” Hsiang said. “[It’s important] to change that around and say ‘why am I giving this person who has been hurt more responsibility than the person who hurt them?’”

       Wilmerding said this shift in thinking can be difficult, but is imperative to progress, mentioning a friend who once said “I should be able to go out, wear whatever I want, and get as drunk as I want, and have the only consequence be that I am too hungover to get out of bed in the morning.”

       Self-blame and self-doubt are almost always prevalent no matter what the situation was, Hsiang explained, and often a part of a survivor’s process of recognizing that the situation was not his or her fault, and understanding it in his or her own way. Wilmerding also noted that sexual assault prevention discussions often put excessive focus on parties as high-risk environments. While they do increase risk, sexual violence happens regularly in all types of scenarios and locations, and between a diverse range of individuals. Self-doubt is often common because of power differentials, Wilmerding said, for example, a professor harassing a student; instead of being able to recognize inappropriate behavior, a student may feel they acted in a way to provoke it.

       In supporting survivors of sexual assault, it is crucial to be aware of self-blame and self-doubt, as well as offer unconditional support and tell the survivor you believe them. Hsiang stressed the importance of recognizing that the survivor did not have choice or control, so it is important to respect their ability to make decisions and choices for themselves in moving forward.

       “We advertise ourselves as a good starting place, because we can be a place where someone can have a low-stakes conversation, where they know that conversation doesn’t have to go anywhere else,” Hsiang said. “We can help them identify their priorities and what it is they want and don’t want, and help them figure out next steps.”

       Hsiang recommends asking a survivor who discloses to you what they need, how you can best support them (potentially through calling an advocate together), and reminding them that they are not to blame for what happened. She also encourages redirecting survivors to the many resources on campus such as the PATH to Care Center itself, or other organizations like social services at the Tang Center, student groups, the police and Title IX Office, and the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination. PATH to Care also partners with the Bay Area Women Against Rape as well as the Family Violence Law Center to provide extended service, and service to those not interested in working with a campus body.

       Throughout April (Sexual Assault Awareness Month), the PATH to Care Center participated in and held various events led by peer educators, undergraduates who receive training to deliver workshops and facilitate conversations in the community about sexual violence. The center is also in partnership with Student Affairs Case Management, working on an initiative called the Social Norms Seed Grant Initiative, which focuses on correcting misconceptions and negative social norms in the community. While PATH to Care’s main focus is in sexual violence, the staff recognizes that the presence of sexual violence is rooted in all forms of oppression, and working to end that oppression is crucial to progress.

        The best way to get immediate help is through the PATH to Care Center’s 24-hour care line. To speak to a confidential advocate, call at 510-643-2005 (survivors and those indirectly impacted by any form of sexual violence are welcome to call). The office line can also be reached at 510-642-1988 to schedule an appointment or consult on a non-urgent matter.