Sunday, January 29, 2012

Article: FSU takes stand against domestic violence

FITCHBURG -- In September 2009, 22-year-old Alexander Skowran, a Maryland man who had transferred to Fitchburg State University, killed his ex-girlfriend, Giselle Rodriguez, 23, of Clinton.

Days later, he was found dead in a Virginia hotel room after an apparent suicide.

It was just around that time that Allison Myrick, 19, of Groton, then a first-year student at FSU, began dating Robert Gulla, 19, of Shirley.

In January 2010, Gulla was charged with first-degree murder and violating a restraining order in connection with the fatal stabbing of Myrick, who had broken off their brief yet tumultuous relationship about a month earlier after two occasions in which he'd been arrested on charges he assaulted her. Gulla attempted suicide but survived.
Myrick had taken the restraining order out against Gulla four days before she was killed.

In light of these events, FSU officials decided it was necessary to take a proactive approach in making the college community safer and raising awareness about dating violence, the signs that someone may be in an abusive relationship and how to appropriately address such issues.

Fitchburg Anti-Violence Education, or FAVE, was officially launched in October 2010 and became mandatory for all incoming freshmen and transfer students as of January 2011.

Since then, other groups, such as athletic teams, have also completed the training, which focuses on issues of interpersonal and relationship violence, sexual assault and stalking. So far, according to Matthew Bruun, director of public relations for FSU and a FAVE trainer, 1,262 students have completed the training.
According to co-director Jannette McMenamy, a professor of psychological science at FSU, the program is based on one at the University of New Hampshire but modified to make it relevant to students here. Similar programs exist at schools all over the country and there are many different models that work, McMenamy said, but what makes FAVE so special is that nearly every department on campus is represented among the trainers involved.

"The most novel aspect of our program is our way of coordinating it," McMenamy said. "Our 51 trainers represent all the different aspects of our campus community, from art to math to business to athletics to the different administrative offices to maintenance staff."
"When I approached the different departments about getting involved, the response was overwhelmingly positive," said Erin Travia, assistant director of FAVE and a university counselor. "It's exciting to see that kind of response. It iterated that we have a community that wants to support and take care of each other."

"We all play a role in keeping our community safe," McMenamy said.

FAVE training consists of a play titled "Drawing the Shades," which tells the true stories of four students at Virginia Commonwealth University, played by current FSU students, each story unique and told from the perspective of the survivor. It highlights sexual-assault scenarios between both heterosexual and same-sex couples, featuring both men and women as the aggressors.
According to Travia, the rates between heterosexual and same-sex couples are nearly equal, and women can be the aggressors in heterosexual relationships more often than most people would tend to expect.

The play also presents some rather sobering national statistics. According to a 2000 special report from the Bureau of Justice:

* Women ages 16 to 24 experienced the highest per-capita rates of intimate violence -- nearly 20 per 1,000 women.

* 20 to 25 percent of college women experienced attempted or completed rape during their college careers. In 90 percent of those cases, the perpetrator is known to the victim.

A 2008 study by UNH professors determined that 25 to 30 percent of men and women in college dating relationships experience violence.

Another aspect of the training that tends to surprise people is when the students are asked to stand if they or anyone they know has ever been affected by dating violence, according to senior psychology student Saralyn Byler, 21, of Belleville, Pa., who works as McMenamy's research assistant.

"A lot more people stood up than I thought would," Byler said. "It was nearly everyone."

Intervention training

Students also participate in a 75-minute bystander training to help them recognize various forms of violence and abuse and to develop the skills to effectively and safely intervene, Travia said.

They are given different scenarios, and discuss what to do in situations ranging from the drunk girl at a party whom you're sure is going to make a bad decision to noticing a friend has bruises after the friend has seen his or her significant other.

FAVE also tackles what Travia called lower level, more frequently seen disrespectful behavior such as sexist jokes and making fun of others' body types.

"We also teach students how to intervene in these situations, so that these lower level things don't create a culture that allows more tolerance of these situations, so we ultimately have a safer campus where people are respected and violence is not tolerated as a whole," Travia said.

So far, the FAVE initiatives seem to be working, those involved say.

McMenamy said she hears the word "bystander" more often than she ever did prior to FAVE's existence and overall hears more discussion of related matters among students and staff, who in general seem interested in taking the proper actions to keep one another safe.

All of the students who complete the training are given FAVE keychains and ribbons, which are being proudly displayed on backpacks all over campus, according to junior political science major Matthew Costello of Raynham, an orientation leader for FSU.

Byler said she has seen some of her friends make jokes about others' bodies less frequently or they've stopped doing so altogether, and she herself is more conscious of friends' behavior at parties, especially if they are intoxicated and talking to strangers.

Byler also tabulates the surveys given to students after FAVE training, and said many take the open-ended questions seriously, and she said she thinks they are getting something positive out of it.

Though the 2011 crime statistics report from Campus Police showed only a single forcible sex offense on campus from 2008 to 2010, Bruun said this only includes reported incidents on campus and does not account for any that were not reported or happened off campus.

Though the effects of FAVE are largely anecdotal as of now, when numbers do come in for the current school year, however, McMenamy said to not be surprised if they have actually increased, because raising awareness of an issue tends to lead to increased incident reporting.

"In that situation, the numbers tend to spike shortly after awareness is raised, so the goal is to ultimately have them go back down afterward," she said.

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