By Marcus Lavergne
A dark cloud looms over college campuses around the nation. The University of Nevada, Reno, is no exception. This cloud doesn’t disturb the public like the sound of a bullet exploding through its barrel, but it is just as significant. It is a culture of silence that casts a shadow over one of the most prominent issues on college campuses today — sexual violence and harassment.
UNR is not known to exhibit outstanding levels of sexual violence and is not constantly in the media or on law enforcement radars for these types of problems, according to campus officials. Even so, the administration is making an effort to tear through the silence that has hindered the discovery of solutions to a national issue.
Denise Cordova is the director and Title IX coordinator in the Equal Opportunity and Title IX office located in UNR’s Jones Center building. Her office cites the Nevada System of Higher Education policy on sexual harassment, which states, “No employee or student, either in the workplace or in the academic environment, should be subject to unwelcome verbal or physical conduct that is sexual in nature.”
Cordova is responsible for launching investigations into sexual harassment and sexual assault cases and other situations involving violence or inequality. She says that keeping quiet is an issue among both victims or survivors of sexual violence and the general public.
“We’re safe in saying we’re not hearing a lot of reports that have actually occurred involving sexual assault or interpersonal violence,” Cordova said. “We don’t have as many reports as we could have.”
Cordova said she hasn’t seen any statistical evidence that people affected by sexual assault are talking more about their experiences, although in recent times, the issue has been made much more transparent.
She added that the main obstacle for victims or survivors is fear of retaliation, but she says that other emotions do come into play.
“The truth is that many survivors care about the people that do this to them,” Cordova said. “Eighty percent of sexual assault perpetrators are known to the survivors. They care about them still, and they don’t want to get them into trouble.”
Cordova points out that UNR does a good job of providing many resources for sexual assault victims. She says that those resources have made it easier for people to come and report on sexual violence, but it’s still difficult to encourage people to speak up.
She also says that prevention can be facilitated through community enforcement and involvement.
“I believe with regard to prevention, you have to get information out,” Cordova said. “The other part is encouraging students, faculty and staff to say something, to report and to understand that resources are available.”
Cordova’s job makes her responsible for handling the investigation of these cases as well as facilitating further disciplinary action through the Office of Student Conduct if it’s needed. She says that the first thing students need to be given is resources that will help them succeed in getting past the trauma that’s been caused by their experience.
One of those resources is located right beneath the Title IX offices. Justine Hernandez is a prevention educator and outreach specialist as well as the Crisis Call Center’s Campus Victim Advocate.
One of Hernandez’s main responsibilities is to act as a counselor for students who have experienced sexual assault or harassment. When those students feel uncomfortable, scared or disillusioned, Hernandez says she is a confidential resource that students can go to for support and empowerment.
“It takes a lot of strength and a lot of courage to say that you’ve gone through something like this,” Hernandez said. “I’m just here to support them with whatever step their in. I just validate them and in feelings they might be going through. PTSD is going to be related to a lot of cases.”
Hernandez wants to make sure that every student knows the university’s resources are readily available to him or her. She says that she wants to make sure they all have a support system, even if the survivors can’t tell their friends and family.
Hernandez says students will hide the negative thoughts and feelings within themselves for long periods of time. The weight and stress that comes with those feelings can be exhausting, but she says no matter what, they can always come get help.
“It might’ve been a really recent assault that they’re going through,” Hernandez said. “It might’ve been one that happened a couple years ago a couple months ago and they’re finally thinking ‘I’m really ready to tackle this head-on.’ My position alone shows that the university really cares.”
Hernandez is just one resource that students can rely on for support. UNR has taken proactive measures in bringing aid to campus that can help students in their journey to move past their experience with sexual violence. Some include the Sexual Assault Hotline, the Thompson Building’s Counseling Services and the Victims of Crime Treatment Center in Edmund J. Cain Hall.
Hernandez also promotes a wellness for the whole body. She says students might have problems concentrating and may struggle in classes as well. She also pays attention to eating habits and self-medicating and wants to make sure students have also have some sort of self-help system.
“Trauma holds in the body,” Hernandez said. “If you’re not moving and letting it get out of the body it can impact very negatively. If [students] have an outlet that’s really good, something like yoga which is really peaceful and calming.”
Hernandez, who graduated from UNR in 2009, says that the university cares wholeheartedly. She says that since her graduation, the resources have improved ten-fold. The campus has become more accessible to victims or survivors of different forms of abuse and harassment. The Crisis Center Campus Victim Advocate position is evidence of their commitment to students’ health and safety.
“[Students] just want to feel normal,” Hernandez said. “You want to be in college like everyone else but [you] can’t shake this ‘ick.’ To them, I just want to say you’re not alone, and there are people that want to help you.”
Although things continue to improve, Hernandez says she isn’t complacent and she’s always trying to make services, like the one she provides, better for students.
Marcus Lavergne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @mlavergne21.