Last Monday, Nina Harris assumed the role of sexual assault survivor advocate and educator for the college.
Harris is a state-certified sexual assault and domestic violence advocate. She comes to the college after working for three years at the University of Pennsylvania on a grant from the Federal Justice Department, primarily in issues of violence prevention.
“In total, I’ve worked in student affairs for about 13 years and prior to that I worked in [Penn’s] LGBT center on gender and sexuality issues and diversity issues,” Harris said.
According to Beth Kotarski, director of student health services, Harris is set to lead a process of “intentional programing,” designed to build a cultural platform to address the issues of sexual misconduct that came to light last spring.
Harris will act as both an individual rape crisis counselor and an educator, according to Kotarski.
As a counselor, Harris will directly work with students who identify as survivors of sexual assault which includes serving as a critical partner for them in the process of reporting sexual misconduct.
“Students need to have an advocate whose priority and responsibility is directly to them,” Harris said. “My position is to make sure that students’ voices get heard.”
In her role as an educator, Harris will address campus culture. According to her, while the college has made many structural changes in positions and policy, there remains the issue of shifting cultural views and practices currently in place.
“The pieces that I really want to bring in and focus on are more of the primary prevention, ‘How do we make the cultural shift?’ kind. I think a lot of attention has been given to Title IX policy and procedure but not how that translates to community action and the environment,” Harris said. “People can read policy, but policy doesn’t change minds. Policy isn’t prevention.”
This means that campus fraternities and parties will not be Harris’ primary focus.
“While I think that fraternities are important to look at because they do hold a lot of social and cultural capital on campus, I don’t want people to be lulled into the false sense that if we get rid of fraternities we get rid of the problem,” Harris said.
According to her, incidences of sexual misconduct in fraternities and/or involving alcohol are not specific to the site. Any changes made on that front, then, miss the issue at hand since they wrongly identify the cause of the incident.
“For as many assaults that happen with alcohol, there are just as many assaults that happen without alcohol involved; for assaults that happen in fraternities, there are just as many happening in the dorm room. But we’re not trying to shut down the dorms.”
Instead, Harris proposed that broad cultural changes are needed in order to adequately address issues of sexual misconduct. Culture, she said, in terms of acceptable language and practices, is what sets the ground for incidences in the first place.
In this vein, she said she hopes to “create an education that strips away the misperception, strips away the victim-blaming culture, and really focuses in on healthy behavior versus predatory behaviors. [And in this way] you create a clear distinction of what’s acceptable.”
According to Gabby Capone ’14, co-president of Student Council, and a member of both the Task Force on Sexual Misconduct, hiring Harris was one of the many positive responses on the part of the college to the issues raised last Spring.
“This is going to be good for the students, because it represents a change in the structure and the way the college handles sexual assault,” Capone said.
“And it also represents a person that students can go to. Before it was unclear, essentially, who was on my side if I was reporting something, who was here to help me, who is here to investigate my case.”