How Students Stuck In Domestic Abuse Can Get Help From University Advocates — Even When Not On Campus

(Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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The pandemic's stay at home orders, along with increased anxiety due to job losses, illness, and death of friends and family have led to an increase in domestic violence — and college administrators say their students are enduring the violence, too.

Many universities are relying on offices created within the last decade to provide confidential help and support that's helping students navigate the abuse, and remain on track to earn their degrees.

"It's a pretty busy job," said Cortni Alexander, the full-time confidential advocate employed by California State University, San Bernardino to help students and employees on a wide range of issues relating to harassment and sexual violence.

The pandemic has changed how harassment and sexual violence affects people in colleges, she said.

"Students would usually have the opportunity to come on campus and have a couple hours away from home, and potentially, their abuser," Alexander said. "Everyone is spending 24 hours a day inside the house, in a potentially dangerous situation."

Cortni Alexander is a confidential survivors' advocate at CSU San Bernardino. (Jordan Kubat)

Alexander juggles a caseload of 20-35 people in abuse situations at any one time. She helps people file complaints with university officials, go to the police, accompanies them to the hospital, and aids them in asking professors or administrators for accommodations such as deadline extensions or time off from school.

As the pandemic has shifted nearly all university teaching and support services online, advocates like Alexander and the offices that oversee them have also shifted their services online. Those offices say the change to a virtual environment has been a mixed blessing: it's allowed them to help people who would not have come forward —at the same time that it's shut some off from the critical help they need to stop the abuse and harassment in their lives.

CALLS FOR HELP IN THE PANDEMIC

Sexual violence and abuse are common among college students. Surveys conducted by colleges of their student populations suggest that sexual violence and non-consensual sexual acts happen to anywhere from 3% to 30% of college students. In many of these surveys, the rates of abuse reported by LGBT students is higher. Many incidents happen off campus, and most students do not come forward and report them.

According to a December article in the New England Journal of Medicine, abuse crisis centers may be seeing a decline in calls for help, but that doesn't mean abuse is declining during the pandemic.

"We do see somewhat of a decrease in students who utilize our services," said Danielle Samuel, a full-time advocate at CSU Northridge for the past two years:

"We also see that some students have started using our services because of the fact that we are remote right now."

A decrease and an increase? Other campuses report a similar dynamic, because the move of their services to telephone and videoconferencing has encouraged people who may not have been willing to step into a campus office to come forward for help.

Some are seeking help for abuse that's taken place during the pandemic. Others seek counseling for abuse that happened earlier in their lives, perhaps because they were triggered by traumas they experienced during the pandemic.

For students unwilling to step into a campus office to seek help for abuse, it's more convenient and less intimidating to talk remotely to a marriage and family therapist, like Samuel, while in their car or at home.

However, for others the remote setting is not convenient because home is where the abuse is happening, or it's a place where they cannot speak freely.

Karla Aguilar is a confidential suvivors' advocate at UC Riverside. (Courtesy UC Riverside)

"[For] a student that I'm working [with] right now, how can I create safety if they're having to have a counseling session in their bathroom so a parent doesn't hear it?" said Karla Aguilar, director of UC Riverside's Campus Assault Resources & Education (CARE) office.

Fallout from the pandemic such as job loss and the death of friends and family members have increased anxiety, which may increase as people spend a lot of time in close quarters with the same companions.

INTIMATE PARTNER VIOLENCE

Some of the harassment and abuse that college students report is due to an increase in time spent with romantic partners they do or do not live with, and with roommates or family members. Many students have returned to family homes to save money while taking their remote classes.

"We do see a decrease in the number of people who are reporting that strangers have caused the harm," said Mandy Mount, director of UC Irvine's CARE office.

"We're also seeing an increase in the people who report that the person who caused the harm [is] not affiliated with the university," she said.

That means that her office's three full-time advocates are spending more time helping people get out of living situations in which the college student has been harmed or is facing harm. Mount said more UC Irvine faculty and staff have come to her office for help during the pandemic.

Her office, like other such offices at universities, also organizes support groups and programs for survivors of abuse. The staff also conducts trainings for clubs and campus groups like fraternities and sororities.

Some of the most popular group sessions held by advocates and support staff are the webinars on healthy relationships, dating violence, and digital abuse.

Mount said her office has seen more reports of abuse and harassment carried out by people who use technology.

Some of the digital tactics that people use to harass and abuse others, such as their partners, include:

  • Using mobile tracking devices
  • Stealing the passwords of social media accounts
  • Using information from money transfer apps
  • Hacking devices to steal intimate photos, or creating fake nude photos

Here's what CSUN's advocate distributes to help students and employees identify digital dating abuse:

Here are links to the advocate offices at University of California and California State University campuses: UCLA, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, UC Merced, UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC San Francisco.

San Diego State University, CSU Long Beach, CSU Northridge, CSU Fullerton, CSULA CSU Dominguez Hills, Cal Poly Pomona CSU San Marcos, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, CSU San Bernardino, CSU Bakersfield, CSU Channel Islands, Fresno State, CSU San Francisco, Cal Maritime, CSU East Bay, San Jose State, CSU Sacramento, Chico State, CSU Humboldt, CSU Stanislaus, CSU Sonoma, CSU Monterey Bay.

THE WORK OF ADVOCATES DURING THE PANDEMIC IS 'CRITICAL'

Groups that track abuse in California praise the work of confidential university advocates.

"Advocates on campus are absolutely critical to survivors," said Ashley Klein-Jimenez, director of prevention for the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

A key issue is that many college students who endure abuse and harassment don't step forward to report it to non-confidential agencies such as the police or university Title IX offices that carry out investigations.

The increases in certain types of abuse and harassment, she said, are making the campus advocates an important starting point for students to use school resources, such as official investigations conducted by Title IX offices or rape crisis centers. A person gives up some confidentiality after filing an abuse complaint through a Title IX office, whereas the advocates maintain that person's confidentiality.

"Advocates on campus are able to support survivors, whether or not the survivor wants to actually report the sexual violence," Klein-Jimenez said. "So that confidential advocate piece is so critical in letting survivors continue to kind of steer their healing and make choices for themselves."

Klein-Jimenez and other survivor advocates say their biggest concern is that college students don't know that confidential help is available.

"We have a whole prevention team ... that does outreach via social media," said CSUN's Samuel, adding that her office is ramping up its online outreach in the coming month.

"We do have Sexual Assault Awareness month coming up [in April], which we do events for every year, and this year is no different," she said. "We will be doing that online."

Jennifer Pemberton oversees an advocate program at California State University Northridge. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

As university administrators have increased funding for anti-sexual violence programs and support services for survivors, the pandemic has tested the reach of those messages to campus groups that rarely see each other in the real life.

"It takes the whole campus" to support people who've endured abuse and help curb violence, said Jacob Chacko, assistant director for diversity and inclusion at CSU San Bernardino.

To that end, his office sent an email to everyone on his campus, tens of thousands of students and employees, asking for letters of support for assault survivors. Some of the letters will be read in a program for Sexual Assault Awareness month.

Chacko hopes the program brings "empowerment, healing, but also awareness and action on how folks can take action and get connected with our campus advocate."

WHAT ABUSE SUPPORT MAY LOOK LIKE AFTER THE PANDEMIC

While all UC and CSU campuses employ victims' advocates, many of California's 116 community colleges do not.

"Just because [community colleges] don't have students ... living on campus, it doesn't mean that the students aren't being impacted by sexual violence, or dating violence, or stalking or harassment," Klein-Jimenez said.

She lauded community colleges that have set up advocate programs, including Rio Hondo College, Cerritos College, and Sacramento City College.

Another bright spot: California universities have announced that they plan to return to mostly in-person instruction this fall. Support services, like the survivors' advocate, will also return to campus. Administrators who run the CARE offices say they plan to offer a mix of in-person support and services that will keep the telephone and videoconferencing outreach that's helped them reach more students during the pandemic.

"I am hopeful," said UCR's Aguilar. "There is a lot of repairing and healing and connection that's going to have to happen when we get to campus." And she said her office is ready to be part of that healing.

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CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story Mandy Mount's name was incorrect. LAist regrets the error.