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Potential changes ahead for Center for Victim Advocacy

Even though students are concerned about how the quality of services will be affected, Rita DeBate, the associate vice president of Health and Wellness, said services will not be impacted. ORACLE PHOTO/JESSE STOKES

The Center for Victim Advocacy provides survivors of abuse — such as, sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking — an on-campus resource to consult with professionals about what to do next.

However, according to a group of concerned students and faculty, the center could soon face major and potentially questionable changes, though administration contends that any possible alterations will not impact the services provided to members of the campus community.

Caroline Jackson, the president of the N.I.T.E. (Network. Improve. Transform. Inspire.) student organization — a group that advocates for student safety and health — said there’s a plan to change the role from “victim advocate” to “victim assistant,” something she, being a victim of abuse herself, is not comfortable with.

“I am a student who credits the Center for Victim Advocacy for helping me get through my freshman year,” Jackson said. “I do not know If I would have continued classes without their services. I am a concerned student, just as an ally, and also someone who has seen the importance of The Center for Victim Advocacy.”

According to Rita DeBate, the associate vice president of Health and Wellness, the exact changes that come with the difference in titles are not fully laid out and are a part of a larger and on-going conversation.

According to Jackson, these changes were decided behind closed doors.

Jackson added that the only way she and her peers were made aware of this change was from a posting on Indeed — a job listing website — which lists a position available for “Assistant Director – Victim Assistance and Violence Prevention.”

Michelle Hughes Miller, a member of the Women’s Status Committee and a faculty member of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department, echoed the points of Jackson and added that there is concern that victim cases may be outsourced to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, approximately four miles off campus.

However, according to DeBate, no plans for such changes have officially been put into place and the ideas are still in the developmental stage.

“Our ultimate goal is to reduce gender-based violence,” DeBate said.

DeBate also said the conversations began after a number of administrative officials — including, a Title IX Investigator, the director of Student’s Rights and Responsibilities and the director of the Center for Victim Advocacy and Student Outreach and Support — left the university, which allowed for a time to review areas in need of improvement.

As a result of this, DeBate said that she is working toward developing a “Coordinated Community Response Team,” which will be comprised of students, faculty and staff, to evaluate areas in need of improvement.

This is something that Chris Ponticelli, the chair of the Women’s Status Committee, said is vital moving forward.

“This has all taken place, these plans to revamp, in secret,” Ponticelli said. “Something that is that big of a change impacts, not just nearly 50,000 students, but also staff and faculty, because they can use (The Center for Victim Advocacy’s) resources too. To do that in secret, without calling on experts on campus who know about victim advocacy, about how students react to things, it is unconscionable.”

Jackson echoed her points and added that she is hoping for more student input in the future.

“The secrecy and the real swiftness about how this is being pushed through leaves a lot of room for vagueness,” Jackson said. “We are worried that these changes are going to be made, students will realize after the fact and it will be too late to put our voices out there and advocate for ourselves.”

For Miller, the students are her primary concern. She said that faculty members need to feel comfortable with what service they are referring their students to and the “lack of transparency” about what changes are expected makes that difficult, even after speaking with DeBate and Vice President of Student Affairs and Student Success Dr. Paul Dosal.

“I do not think we can speak to (administration’s) motivation of secrecy,” Miller said. “What we can say is what the effect has been … Having the opportunity to finally talk to (DeBate and Dosal) about what the plan would be was amazing, but it was clear that the plan was pretty developed, so that again was pretty problematic.”

Ponticelli went on to say that this issue should not be taken lightly by members of the administration.

“If administration does not take it seriously that this is important to students, then they need to stop and look again,” she said.

Dosal referred all questions to DeBate and said she was the appropriate party to outline the potential changes.

DeBate assured, however, that the health and safety of the members of the campus community is the most important aspect of this conversation.

“We will never get rid of any resources that we currently have,” DeBate said.