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Theory in action

Students collaborate on creation of new sexual assault resource website.

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By Brooke Adams, communications specialist, University Marketing & Communications

Project ideas quickly gelled around a central theme for students in the Gender, Health & Human Rights Praxis Lab offered by the Honors College last year: campus sexual assault.

As the students delved into this critical problem and examined the university’s approach to addressing sexual assault, they came up with a two-part project. Part one: Boost campus counseling resources to help sexual assault survivors’ recovery process. Part two: Create a comprehensive website with information and resources addressing sexual assault.

The students accomplished both goals spectacularly.

Using money available to them via the Honors College and private donors, they funded the hiring of a clinical practicum student in the Women’s Resource Center over the summer, which ensured there was no gap in counseling services during those months. They also advocated successfully, via the Presidential Task Force on Campus Safety, to provide funds to increase hours of the center’s counseling coordinator and thus allow the center to help more clients.

In addition, the students provided content for the website that has been incorporated in the new SafeU website launched in September.

“Our thinking was that if a student or community member is assaulted, they usually disclose first to peers or friends or don’t disclose at all,” said Mahalia Lotz, a junior from West Valley City majoring in sociology and gender studies who was in the Praxis Lab and played a key role in the project. “The natural reaction in both circumstances if someone needs help or is confused about what to do is to search Google for information.”

But when the students tried searching the internet for phrases such as “University of Utah rape help” or “University of Utah sexual assault,” no useful pages came up, Lotz said.

“We wanted to make the resources more visible and accessible because they are underutilized by students,” said Lotz, who also served as a student representative on the task force. “Our goal was to collect information from all the offices on campus that address sexual assault and display it in a student friendly way on a single site.”

Lotz said the students also wanted to clarify the reporting process for sexual assault and raise awareness of the free or low-cost resources available on campus and in the community.

“I think we succeeded at that,” Lotz said. The website is “accessible, comes up high in search results and has a lot of good content that has been reviewed for accuracy, inclusivity and readability.”

The project is a perfect example of the goal of the Honors College Praxis Labs: Give students from all disciplines a chance to combine theory with action in a collaborative project focused on a pressing societal problem. The topics chosen each year vary within three major areas: Health & Society, Energy & Environment and Social Justice.

The 2016-17 Gender, Health & Human Rights Praxis Lab was taught by Megan M. Reynolds, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, and Claudia Geist, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Gender Studies Program.

During fall semester, their 13 students focused on understanding gender, health and human rights issues through readings, videos and speakers. In the spring, they applied that knowledge to their chosen project.

Geist said the students’ project idea came together after the university’s response to a reported rape last year and creation of the task force, which provided an opportunity to get institutional support for a resource website. [Police later said they were not able to find evidence that a crime occurred as reported.]

Geist said a key goal for the students was to create a “one-stop” resource website for survivors of sexual assault and secondary survivors — those close to a survivor — that could stand out as a model for other Pac-12 schools.

“The University of Utah can be proud of what this group of students accomplished,” Geist said.

Rene Gilfillan, a junior from Salt Lake City majoring in psychology and health, society and policy, said the website is “probably the most significantly tangible thing we’ve done as a class.”

“It took so much work but was so satisfying to see how it turned out,” Gilfillan said. “We had no idea how hard and expensive web development is and we were fortunate the Office of the Dean of Students was willing to use university funds for it. It feels very good to know that was something we students did.”

The Office of the Dean of Students contributed $5,000 for development of the sexual assault website, while the Presidential Task Force on Campus Safety requested and received another $8,000 for development of the website.

“Our students worked extraordinarily hard to ensure that the sexual assault website would be timely, accessible and relevant,” said Barb Snyder, senior vice president for academic affairs and co-chair of the task force. “Their efforts were welcome and are greatly appreciated.”

Lotz and Gilfillan both said they would like to see more promotion of the new website. “This is a discussion that is happening all over campus in little groups, but needs to come out into the open,” Lotz said.

Lotz also said she is curious about what impact there will be from mandatory sexual assault prevention trainings, which students and newly hired faculty and staff will have to complete beginning in fall 2018.

“Trainings are a big step,” she said.