On Jan. 24, students and faculty gathered in Crossroads to celebrate the launch of MiddSafe, the College’s first 24/7 sexual assault hotline.
MiddSafe has been in the works for several years and marks a critical development in the College’s programming to prevent sexual assault on campus. The long-awaited activation of the hotline was made possible by both the help of a grant from the Department of Justice and the hiring of a Health and Wellness Education Director, Barbara McCall, at the start of the academic year.
The Task Force on the Status of Women Report from 2008 recommended the introduction of a sexual assault advocacy program. In the wake of the report, the Sexual Assault Oversight Committee (SAOC) was founded and has been planning the sexual assault hotline ever since.
The hotline takes the form of a cell phone passed between advocates and is confidential, except in situations where the caller poses a risk to him or herself or others.
Last spring, the SAOC issued a call for student advocates to staff the hotline. Applications were reviewed by Director of Chellis House Karin Hanta and Associate Dean for Judicial Affairs and Student Life Karen Guttentag, who then selected 15 students to undergo advocate training. The advocates underwent 20 hours of training that included webinars from the Department of Justice, conversations with staff members at Parton Health Center, Counseling Services and the Chaplain’s office.
McCall’s presence on campus acted as a catalyst for the development of the hotline, as the role of Director and Health and Wellness had remained unfilled for two years.
“When I arrived this summer, students had already been selected [as advocates], they had gone through an interview process with members of the SAOC, and I really had this summer to get to know them, get to know the history of the program, plan the training and then get everybody trained when folks returned in the fall,” McCall said.
“We spent a lot of the fall semester working out the kinks and details and the kinds of things that, when you’re writing a program plan, you might not actually think of until you’re in the thick of actually trying to get things to happen.”
McCall noted that planning for the hotline involved looking at peer institutions conducting similar work, noting Harvard, Amherst and Castleton State as local or peer schools with particularly robust hotline programs.
“Really, it was about figuring out what makes sense for our community, what makes sense for Middlebury,” McCall said. “Sometimes that was really close to what someone else was doing, and then there were other times that we had to make it fit us from scratch. So there’s been a bit of borrowing from past ideas and past knowledge, and also using what we know about Middlebury.”
The student advocates applied for the program because they believed it filled a void in the College’s current system dealing with sexual assault, and because it has the potential to change on-campus attitudes toward sexual assault.
“I had been frustrated by the sexual assault awareness program during orientation and talked to Karin Hanta and Karen Guttentag about it and they both let me know when this program came up,” said MiddSafe advocate Rebecca Coates-Fincke ’16.5. “I thought it was a really good way to launch myself into this part of campus that’s working toward prevention and support, and I think it’s really helpful for people to know that they have peers available to help.”
Fellow advocate Sophie Kligler ’15 noted that the SAOC has developed a number of programs to raise awareness of and prevent sexual assault, but none that are based on peer support. The peer support component and the potential to create meaningful change led her to apply to be an advocate.
The goal of MiddSafe is not to tell callers what they should do next. Rather, the advocates seek to affirm students and allow them to make their own decisions.
“We’re not in the business of making any decisions for anybody,” Alex Strott ’15 said. “We’re just there to let people know what all of their options are, so we might ask them what they need from us, what kind of information they’re looking for, give them options and let them make their own decisions and point them toward the appropriate resources.
Coates-Fincke added that, above all, the MiddSafe advocates are here to listen.
“We’re available just to take down people’s stories… to hear people. If someone needs to call and just tell a voice that this happened to them, we’re available to take down that story, which I think is important to bear witness,” she said.
MiddSafe’s reach is expected to extend beyond the hotline, as private consultations with peer advocates are available and students can approach advocates in person or set up informal meetings.
Advocates and advisors expect MiddSafe to evolve to meet the needs of the community.
“I think the programmatic piece is something that we’re going to figure out as we move through,” McCall said. “We also want to put some information out to campus — what do folks need to know about sexual assault in our community, how can they be thinking about best ways to care for themselves and care for friends? I think there are going to be a lot of ways for MiddSafe to insert itself as a proactive, positive force into a lot of the conversations that are already happening on campus.”
The program is expected to expand both its reach and its number of advocates. McCall said that MiddSafe did receive several applications from men, and that the potential male advocates simply decided not to continue with joining the program.
“Our goal for next year is definitely to reach out to the male community on campus because this isn’t just a female issue,” Kligler said.
Programming throughout the year – especially during first-year orientations – will be integral in spreading awareness of MiddSafe’s presence on campus.
“We’ll certainly be talking about what kind of role MiddSafe could play in orientation, and especially during those first six weeks [on campus],” McCall said. “For example, how advocates can remain most visible to students as we introduce [new students] to our community and talk about ways to stay safe and ways to get support when they need it.”
To reach MiddSafe, call 802-377-0239