A recent “Start by Believing” campaign at Utah State University marks the latest of a yearslong effort to improve how the school responds to sexual violence and harassment on campus.
The university reaffirmed its commitment to that initiative on April 7, when it set up booths on campus (and off, at the nearby Latter-day Saint Institute) to allow members of the campus community to take a pledge on Start By Believing Day. The booths were also on hand at USU Eastern’s campuses in Price and Blanding the same day.
Now, USU’s actions on this front are getting noticed nationally. End Violence Against Women International will recognize USU, along with five other organizations across the country, for participating in Start By Believing in a virtual event on April 29.
It is something USU President Noelle Cockett discussed in a message to the campus community released April 7.
“How we respond to disclosures of sexual assault is extremely important,” she said. “A negative or indifferent response — disbelief, blaming, questioning, minimizing — can worsen a survivor’s trauma and make it less likely they will report to police or seek the help they need. Our reactions, even unintentional ones, can contribute to silencing survivors and their stories.”
Cockett said if campus community members respond to sexual violence victims in a positive way, “we can end the silence, encourage more people to disclose their experiences, and support them on their path to justice and healing.”
Felicia Gallegos, outreach and prevention coordinator with USU’s Sexual Assault & Anti-Violence Information office, said it was a good feeling to receive a message from the school’s president on an issue as important as believing people who experience sexual violence.
“It just warms my heart,” she said. “Receiving an email like that really shows the campus community that, you know, at Utah State, we're going beyond compliance … we’re not just doing the check-the-box training; we really are trying to cultivate a culture.”
Gallegos, a recent USU alumna, also gave her assessment of how well campus community members are walking the talk when it comes to believing survivors. When she was a student, she felt there was hardly any messaging on campus about sexual violence prevention; now, you “can’t walk five feet” without seeing a poster or flyers. In addition, more faculty are reaching out to SAAVI asking questions about how they can better their classroom environment.
“There’s a lot more people invested in the conversation,” Gallegos said.
The premise behind Start By Believing Day is to create a culture of respect for sexual assault/rape survivors, who all too often have reported not being taken seriously by family members, friends, work associates or even law enforcement. In recent years, high-profile court cases and movements like #MeToo have begun to change that, but many advocates believe more could be done.
Those people include Jones-Lockwood, who has called herself an advocate for over 20 years.
“I believe we all have more work to do to create an environment where survivors do not fear being believed,” she wrote. “Start by Believing is one example of a victim-centered response, and we know that change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to create meaningful change for survivors, and Start by Believing is a fantastic starting place.”
SAAVI advocate Nicole Steinicke staffed a Start by Believing booth on Wednesday afternoon in the Taggart Student Center. Steinicke said she was pleased with the booth’s reception.
“People have been stopping by here as well as at the Institute and at the library,” Steinicke said. “A lot of people have been approaching, asking what is this, and when they’ve found out they’ve gotten really excited about it. And I’ve had zero negative reactions all day in response to it, and no challenging of it, either.”
The culture Start by Believing fosters is important, Steinicke said, because sexual assault victims’ trauma can be compounded if they come forward but friends and family don’t believe them.
“That can almost be, in some people’s cases, even more traumatizing" than the original incident, Steinicke said. “And so to have a community and to have a culture where we believe one another, where that’s the default, is really encouraging and can just shift the way things go, the trajectory of the survivor’s life. And they’re able to heal and there’s not added trauma to their already hard experience.”
Ilah Hickman, a junior studying wildlife ecology & management, stopped by the booth to sign the pledge and share it on social media. Hickman said she appreciates that the school is taking such a broad approach in raising awareness of sexual assault, trauma and other issues.
“As a female, I think it’s really important that we aren’t put under the pressure of believing that it was our fault,” Hickman said. “And it doesn’t have to be a female, it could be anybody that’s put in those situations.”
Hickman said she feels the school has done a good job in its response to sexual assault — a possible indicator that efforts like Start by Believing have shifted attitudes at USU from only a few years ago when the school faced criticism and even federal investigations into how its Title IX office handled complaints. A number of high-profile cases, including the rape convictions of former football player Torrey Green and allegations of a pattern of sexual harassment and discrimination in the school's piano program, were only revived after victims started telling their stories via social and news media.
“I love how everything is starting to become more open, and people are more open with mental health and sexual assault,” Hickman said. “And I think it’s something that is a long time coming, so I’m really glad that I’m in the generation where it’s finally been accepted and that people can be a part of it and help make this movement happen.”
Alison Jones-Lockwood, Start by Believing community liaison for EVAWI, responded in an email when asked why USU should be receiving the honor now in light of its high-profile sexual violence cases.
“Utah State is not the only university that has been investigated for their past responses to sexual assault, nor are they the only university seeking to improve after these investigations,” she wrote. “Start by Believing is a step in the right direction toward improving their response, and Utah State University has shown a commitment to embracing (the program) ... campus wide.”
Gallegos was also asked how the recognition from EVAWI plays in light of the high-profile cases.
“These cases have become the building blocks to creating this culture that we've reached, and we wouldn't have been able to get to this point without being able to authentically and genuinely look at what we were doing wrong and what we can improve on,” Gallegos said. “The beauty of Utah State is that we did that.”
As part of its efforts to improve, USU has also completed two “campus climate surveys” every other year, starting in 2017.
The past two surveys are difficult to compare as far as reasons students who call themselves survivors chose not to disclose their sexual assault. The 2017 report provides data under the term “non-consensual sexual contact” while the 2019 goes further, delineating between non-consensual touching and penetration.
In the 2017 survey, 57% of respondents answered “no” when asked if the reason they did not tell anyone about their assault was because they would not be believed, compared to 42% who answered that question affirmatively.
In 2019, it was not clear if respondents who experienced non-consensual sexual touching or penetration say they didn’t come forward for the same reason. Instead, it lists “were ashamed/embarrassed,” “it’s a private matter” or “wanted to forget it happened” as the top three reasons and no others are given.
Gallegos said the surveys have offered valuable insight into how the school is responding to sexual violence. She noted a third campus climate survey is in the works for 2021.