SAFER’s Communication Coordinator Tracey Vitchers recently sat down with three representatives from Bergen Community College in Paramus, NJ to discuss the college’s new Violence Prevention Intervention Center, which has been attracting national attention for its comprehensive approach to sexual violence prevention and intervention.
Vitchers held the conversation with Prof. Shari Franschman, Vice President Naydeen Gonzalez-De Jesus, and Director of Public Safety Bill Corcoran.
SAFER Communications Coordinator Vitchers: “What steps have you taken as a school and as an administration to support survivors and create the Violence Prevention Intervention Program at Bergen Community College?”
Prof. Franschman: “I would like to explain a little bit about the webpage and then explain a bit about our program. The webpage came about because at the college our goal is to empower victims. Empower victims meaning number one, educating victims that they have a choice, and two providing many options for victims to make the best choice for them. So, for the first part, from a social work background my experience has been that many victims don’t know that if they go to counseling that they don’t have to report their assault to police and that they do have a choice in that. So that’s the first part, letting victims know that it is completely up to them what they do. And, providing many options as possible for victims.
We have created a Coordinated Community Response. I feel that term Coordinated Community Response is used loosely by many institutions. We really worked to create a true Coordinated Community Response. It did not happen overnight. It has been a process of meeting monthly with both internal and external partners. Internal partners include judicial affairs, public safety, the county police who are on campus, counselors, medical professionals, and students. Eternal partners include the local shelter, Shelter our Sisters, the Why Rape? Crisis Center, and Alternatives to Domestic Violence (ADV). It meant meeting monthly and it’s not until you collaborate that you are able to identify the loopholes. Initially ADV was not part of our response and we recognized we were not providing legal services to victims or services to the accused perpetrator, which ADV does.
We wanted our partners to communicate what would happen if a victim came forward step by step in order to empower them, reduce any anxiety, and reduce fear of the unknown. On the website, each one of our partners walks a victim through step by step what would happen if they use our resources all the while emphasizing confidentiality. If I were a victim, that’s what I would need to hear. Also, in creating the videos it brought our partners together even more. Through the process of making the videos our partners understood how crucial each partner is in the process and the Coordinated Community Response.
A unique feature we have here on campus are Student Ambassadors who go through a 40 hour training once per year, which is provided by our partners. Specifically, our students are trained on how to manage our 24-hour hotline and how to speak with victims in person. We recognize that if a student goes to public safety and the public safety officer doesn’t know what to do the officer can call a student ambassador who can walk the victim through all of their options. We train students how to listen. Our students do not provide counseling nor do they tell victims what to do. They do make sure that if they answer a call the person calling is in a safe space, provides them with their options, and offers to walk them through whatever they need support with.
Our student ambassadors participate in all of our monthly meetings so we know what students are thinking and what they need. Our student ambassadors do outreach every day. They go to classrooms to educate and listen. And, the student ambassadors staff a table in the cafeteria. The students will go table to table in the cafeteria to talk with students and to hand out booklets with information on the Center and violence prevention and intervention resources available to students.
Another feature we offer through the website is Confidential Chat, which goes to an online counseling service, which I would like Dr. Gonzalez-De Jesus to explain.”
Dr. Gonzalez-De Jesus: “The Confidential Chat connects students with a trained counselor who can speak with them about sexual violence issues. We use a program called “Web X” that is Skype-like, but is not Skype in order to protect the identity of the survivor, and ensure privacy and confidentiality. It also serves a dual purpose. We use it for the Violence Prevention Intervention Center and for online education instruction.
In terms of counseling, if I were the counselor I would be able to share my screen with the student to walk them through their options on the website, it allows me to see the student through a video chat option to ensure their level of anxiety has been reduced through our conversation, and it allows the student to see me and gain a sense of trust. It can also be used off-campus and provides the comfort of being at home or wherever you are. When students go through these types of incidents they sometimes feel afraid or feel a lack of safety. So instead of putting them through that the student can stay home and speak with a counselor in a place where they feel safe.”
Director of Public Safety Corcoran: “It’s basically what Shari had said, it’s connect the dots. In the beginning we definitely had to believe in ourselves in order for us to progress and it took a while. We needed to say ‘We need this team to make sure it works.’ And I believe we’ve built a team that can build whatever need a student has and I feel confident about that. Whatever course the student wishes to take, we will be there to supply confidential assistance step by step.”
Prof. Franschmen: “At any campus where they are trying to create a coordinated community response there is definitely a turf syndrome, by which I mean that different groups or departments are protective of their resources or their way of doing things in a way that can create hurdles or barriers to collaboration and change. And, if a college is not talking about that, they are lying. It is in any community, but at a college especially. It is inherent in the many disciplines. For example, with law enforcement or public safety there tends to be a closed system of communication. Maybe they don’t want to share their information. And it’s not that they are trying to be resistant or inflexible, but it’s just their nature of their discipline. And, for example, counseling, although they are largely made up of social workers and they tend to be open with their communication that is not always the case in a college environment because they are trying to protect the students they are serving. And so it means bringing people together for the monthly meetings to discuss the overall goal and mission. And, making the partners around the table feel respected.”
Dr. Gonzalez-De Jesus: “One of the things is to make sure every department that is involved feels included and feel part of the process from inception to completion. So again it’s not just about having the meetings because any college can sit down and have meetings with departments that need to be involved. It’s about birthing the process and doing so means involving everyone in determining what are our goals, what is our mission, what is our vision of the program and have everyone provide their ideas about how can we make it work. That’s how you get ownership. That’s how you get away from the turf war. That’s how you get away from having individuals or departments working in silos.”
Dr. Franschman: “And sometimes people will come from the attitude of ‘why fix it if it’s not broke.’ It’s about going to webinars and trainings together to show that we are providing services, but maybe not in the best way we can. I study leadership styles and that was so helpful for me because you cannot have authoritarian leadership around the table. It has to be transformational leadership.”
Director of Public Safety Corcoran: “When you come from 35 years in law enforcement, which is a very hierarchical field, it can be a challenge to change your way of thinking. And changing that mindset was key in the development of this programming.”
SAFER Communications Coordinator Vitchers: “What were some of the challenges that you faced aside from the turf war issues and community building?”
Prof. Franschman: “It wasn’t necessarily a challenge, but something we learned was that you have to have the buy in from up above. We recently have had a change in administration including the college president and vice president. And, in order to truly get the buy in from the community at large we really needed to have the vocal and visible support from the administration.
One of our challenges was the implementation of our bystander intervention program as a commuter, two-year school. At first we tried to do bystander intervention with a faculty member who had six hours of release time, six hours just wasn’t enough to conduct the student trainings. To get bystander intervention going we had to have someone designated just for hosting bystander intervention training programs, which required the support of the administration. And, being a two-year commuter school means we have a high turnover a students meant we have to host trainings more frequently than four-year institutions, which, again, meant we needed someone designated to host frequent trainings.”
Director of Public Safety Corcoran: “I think the biggest challenge was believing in ourselves as a group and moving away from the silo culture. Once we overcame that challenge things really changed and the program started to progress positively.“
Dr. Gonzalez-De Jesus: “I’m going to give you a practical example. I only started in my position as Vice President about seven and a half months ago and when I was introduced to Dr. Franschman she told me about the grant and the developing program and I asked her, ‘So where is your office?’ and Dr. Franschman told me ‘Oh, well we don’t have an office.’ And I said to her ‘You don’t have an office? What do you mean you don’t have an office?’ And so when she says you need the buy in from the administration something as simple as finding a physical space that is near the student area and is easily identifiable for students and counselors to find information about our services can be a huge challenge. And so I gave them a temporary space last year, but moving forward this fall they will have a true office space in the student center where students can go to get information and resources. If we want our students to be successful and excellent in their academics at college we need to give them the support and resources they need so their well-being is also managed.
Dr. Franschman: “To have a vice president who is part of the process as much as Dr. Gonzalez is and who wants to send a message to our student ambassadors that their work is important enough that we will give them their own office space sends a strong message to students that sexual violence issues are being taken seriously and students will be supported.
I receive phone calls and emails from students across the country that have come across our website asking us for resources in our community, can you imagine? And so we’ve set up a resource center for students who are just doing research can access videos, resources, brochures and can speak with our counselors, which is amazing.”
SAFER Communications Coordinator Vitchers: “What are you plans for the Violence Prevention Intervention Center for this school year?”
Dr. Franschman: “In October the Violence Prevention Intervention Center is working with the Latino Student Union, the LGBT Student Union and the Women’s Center to have a day called “Break the Silence”. In the morning someone from the local shelter will do an art therapy project and all day we will be hosting a door project. For the door project we literally went to Loews to purchase framed doors and we will put the doors all over campus. The Student Ambassadors will decorate them and when the doors open there will be a message inside regarding consent. And so opening the door will be symbolic for obtaining consent. The message will be that just because I opened the door for you once doesn’t mean I’m opening it for you again and so you must always obtain consent. After that we will have some of our partners present a workshop on consent. We will also host a “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” event where 100 criminal justice students and athletes will wear high-heeled shoes and walk a mile across campus to show how difficult it can be to walk a mile in a woman’s shoes. We will end the night with dancing and a DJ, a Take Back the Night Event, and a play about domestic violence.”
SAFER Communications Coordinator Vitchers: Do you think student response to the center has been positive?
Dr. Franschman: “Before the website we received about a dozen calls to our hotline during the semester as well as some emails. We also had some faculty reach out as survivors. And, on average we have about three students living in the local domestic violence shelter during any given semester.
We also have a class called ‘Success’ each semester that teaches basic skills on how to be a successful student. Part of the class is you have to keep a journal throughout the semester about the topics covered. I have taught ‘Success’ in years past and we have had cases where students come forward as survivors in that class. And so we have been invited by professors to have our student ambassadors or partners present in the class.”
Dr. Gonzalez-De Jesus: “Also, since the website launched about a month ago and increased traffic to the site we are expecting the number of students who will report incidents of sexual violence or use the services provided by the Center will double if not triple once classes resume this fall because as Dr. Franschman said we getting a lot of calls and emails from people outside the county and outside the state looking for resources and support. And, so we recognize the impact we are already having nationwide now and we can only imagine the increase in use by our students once the semester begins.”
SAFER Communications Coordinator Vitchers: “What are your future plans for the Center?”
Dr. Franschman: “We have applied for another grant that is similar to the Department of Justice Grant we received that enabled us to establish the Violence Prevention Intervention Center in the first place. And, if we get it I would like to use the funds to create an online training and assessment program for our public safety employees to better prepare them to address issues of sexual assault and focus more on our bystander intervention program to emphasize changing the culture on campus. As a criminal justice professor I’m always surprised by what students are used to and willing to accept. And I would like our program to change that.”