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Student Activism on Campus: Sexual Assault Response Coalition

I met the current and former team members of the Sexual Assault Response Coalition (SARC) - a registered student club at Northeastern University, over two interviews and by attending one of their regular meetings on campus. SARC works to end sexual assault and intimate partner violence at Northeastern University by protecting and advocating for survivors’ rights, bringing survivor-centred resources to campus, streamlining the reporting process, and educating the general campus population on sexual violence prevalence and prevention.

Location: Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Liisa and Camille standing smiling in front of a brick wall.
Left to right: Liisa Balazs and Camille Schloeffel
Sage, Camille and Kelly smiling standing in front of a brick wall.
Left to right: Sage Shumate, Camille Schloeffel and Kelly Walsh

Meetings with 2021 SARC President, Liisa Balazs, 2022 SARC President, Sage Shumate, and President of Events, Kelly Walsh.

“People join our movement for various reasons. Some people have activism backgrounds and want to join, others are survivors and want to be a part of it because of that, others see NEUSpeakout and are inspired, or people join because they simply want to learn more.”

– Liisa Balazs

My first meeting was with Liisa Balazs, the 2021 SARC President and a fierce advocate for survivor rights on university campuses and beyond. Balazs had been part of a sexual violence activist group in high school, so she brought valuable activism experience when she joined SARC as a general member in 2018. Balazs' expertise and knowledge of prevention, education and support demonstrated how integral student activism and advocacy is to university responses to sexual violence in how she developed evidence-based policies for the university to consider and led the facilitation of trauma-informed educational workshops to students.

I then met the wonderful Sage Shumate and Kelly Walsh, the 2022 SARC President and 2022 President of Events respectively. Shumate is an inspiring student leader who joined SARC in her first year of university and entered the role as President for 2022. Similar to Balazs, she was involved in a student group in a high school focussed on sexual wellbeing. Walsh also spoke about her passion and interest in advocating for positive change, particularly by hosting events on campus to build greater awareness of SARC’s cause. 

SARC was created in 2014 when there was nothing on campus to prevent or respond to sexual violence, including no confidential resources available to staff and students. So, as tends to happen when this is the case, students took on the task to better prevent sexual violence in their community and support people who experienced it. When speaking to these inspiring student activists, I found their work to be split into three clear streams:

  1. Institutional reform 

  2. Community engagement and education

  3. Empowering victim-survivors to speak out

Institutional reform
“Institutional change may take time, but there is a difference between the slowness of institutional change and being ignored by those who you need in order to make that change.”

– Sage Shumate

Students who experience sexual violence often don't understand or trust in systems to take them seriously when considering whether to report to universities. Balazs spoke about how system failures force students, and particularly victim-survivors, to step up and take action to protect themselves and others. During Balazs' time as President of SARC, she established the Northeastern University Restorative and Transformative Justice Taskforce. The student-led Taskforce developed a proposal for Northeastern University to implement a model for reconciliation options (non-punitive) for students who experience campus sexual violence. However, at the time of speaking, the university still had not decided whether they would implement such models for reconciliation despite the evidence of its utility for victim-survivors presented to them by the SARC. 

“For universities, it's all about competition and profits.”

– Liisa Balazs

One of the ways Balazs worked to get more institutional buy-in to SARC’s activism and advocacy on this issue was her emphasis on building strong community partnerships, including with the local Boston Rape Crisis Centre and other sexual violence prevention organisations, like the Sexual Violence Prevention Association (SVPA) and the Every Voice Coalition.

Balazs, Shumate and Walsh all spoke about how their initiatives had received more buy-in at Northeastern compared to other universities in the Boston area. They referenced SVPA's Ranking Score - which was created by Omny Miranda Martone, CEO of SVPA, and one of the Founders of SARC when they were a student at Northeastern University. The SVPA Scoring System assesses universities' practices regarding sexual violence and provides a point of comparison across the sector. The SARC team often seek out data on how institutions compare in how they prevent and respond to sexual violence.

Learnings for the Australian context?
  1. Institutions should explore restorative and transformative approaches to sexual violence on campus. This must be expert-led and done in a way that facilitates trust and restoring of relationships between the institution and victim-survivors, activists and students. 

  2. Activists and community organisations are stronger in partnership and can support each other’s efforts to stand together as a coalition on addressing campus sexual violence.

  3. Experts and organisations could explore a national project, similar to the SVPA Score, where Australian universities are assessed based on how safe their campus is and how they respond to harm and violence when it does occur. This must be led external to the university sector and be led by grassroots activists.

Community engagement and education

The SARC team have developed a range of workshops and presentations on topics such as:

  • Responding to disclosures of sexual violence

  • Resources available on and off-campus for support and report options

  • Self-care

  • Delivering presentations in a trauma-informed way.

SARC advocates for continuous prevention education on sexual violence and related issues. To achieve this, SARC delivers many peer-led education sessions across the university. One of their goals is to create a more uniform experience across campus by ensuring their workshops and presentations are delivered to all parts of the university on a regular basis.

Shumate and Walsh spoke about how Title IX (law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education) is ineffective in addressing campus sexual violence on a national scale, as universities across each of the states differ in the bare minimum actions they do on this issue. In some states, Shumate explained, universities do nothing past the bare minimum set by Title IX. Title IX sets baseline requirements for Title IX offices, but universities do have the option to go above this threshold of compliance. Some universities still don’t have confidential support available for people who experience sexual violence.

Shumate's experience as a Resident Advisor (RA) (pastoral care role in a residential hall) reminded me of my own experience in this role at the Australian National University (ANU). In particular, the way that RAs are expected to provide pastoral care support to their peers, including responding to disclosures of sexual violence, but only receive one training per semester on Title IX during their induction training period. This limited training and support by the institution to equip RAs with the skills, confidence and resources to understand sexual violence, provide safe environments for their peers, and be able to respond to disclosures safely and compassionately is unfortunately a shared experience. Shumate also explained how RA's are mandated reporters and are forced to report any instance of sexual violence they are aware of directly to the Title IX office. There are many flaws in this approach. First, it prevents people from disclosing to their RA in the first place out of fear of their confidentiality being broken and their experience being told to the Title IX coordinator (usually a lawyer) without their consent. Second, it suggests that a victim-survivor is a case to be managed rather than a person to be listened to, believed and supported. 

Learnings for the Australian context?
  1. Education should always be developed in partnership with students, activists and survivors, delivery must always be peer-led, and this should be regular and have reach across the campus community. 

  2. Peer support models, such as RAs, must be maintained as an important part of building a positive and supportive community in residential halls. To support this, RAs must receive comprehensive education on sexual violence, responding to disclosures, report and support avenues on and off campus, trauma-informed care and language, and how to care for themselves. 

  3. Privacy and confidentiality must not be compromised unless a person is at risk of harm to themselves or others. Blanket mandatory reporting to a central office must not be enforced in residential hall settings. Instead, a community of care culture should be developed which believes victim-survivors, supports their choices, and ensures the whole community has access to information, resources and education on how to appropriately and compassionately respond. 

Empowering victim-survivors to speak out
“When people see stories like theirs they feel empowered to share their own.”

– Kelly Walsh

SARC is also the parent organisation to the NEUspeakout Instagram page. It provides a safe and supportive space for victim-survivors to share their stories and raise awareness around the pervasiveness of sexual violence at Northeastern University. All stories published on this site remain anonymous and confidential. They told me how this account sharing anonymous experiences of sexual violence is viewed differently by the community, for example:

  • Victims, survivors and their supporters perceive the account as validating for many in the community, and empowering for those who share.

  • The university administration and businesses on campus, such as Greek Life organisations, perceives it as inflammatory to the community, a risk to their reputation and a threat to the status quo.

Ultimately, NEUspeakout serves as a platform for people to share safely on their own terms and is also a source of education as it opens up discussions about these issues in the broader community.

“The point of NEUspeakout is to empower survivors, it’s not about creating specific policy change or coming at specific organisations.”

– Sage Shumate

Despite this goal of NEUspeakout, it has subsequently created policy and by-law changes to occur within Greek life organisations after people had shared their stories of sexual violence in these spaces. Fraternities have also sought education, resources and advice from the SARC team, which has helped build a more positive partnership between Greek Life and SARC generally.

Learnings for the Australian context?
  1. Victim-survivors and their supporters deserve to be provided platforms to share their experiences anonymously, safely and on their own terms. This form of empowerment and storytelling is key to creating a community of solidarity, while also fostering positive change in people’s attitudes and institution’s policies. 

  2. Universities in Australia similarly perceive victim-survivors sharing their experiences publicly as a threat to their reputation rather than providing compassion and empathy for the people harmed on their campuses. This is why groups like SARC and The STOP Campaign are integral to creating safer university communities and supporting victim-survivors. 

I was also able to attend one of SARC's general meetings, in which we had SVPA deliver a presentation on the Red Zone. This was a fantastic way for me to meet more members of the team - shout out to the wonderfully welcoming Alexa Grayson who took me to dinner at her dining hall on campus and had big chats on all things sexual violence prevention!

In solidarity,

Camille Schloeffel

Learn more about SARC:

Learn more about Campus Sexual Violence and the Red Zone:

Learn more about Restorative Justice:

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