LOGAN — Utah State University held an open house of its Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity office Thursday, which was intended to introduce the university community to new staff and initiatives to prevent and respond to sexual assault, sexual misconduct and discrimination.
The overhaul of the office is part of the university's response to an independent investigation that found gender discrimination and sexual misconduct went unchecked in the school's music department for years, Title IX complaints that were improperly handled, and a spate of sexual assaults in which students were aggressors and victims.
Just two weeks ago, former USU football player Torrey Green was found guilty of raping five women and sexually assaulting a sixth in Brigham City's 1st District Court.
Amanda DeRito, USU's sexual misconduct information coordinator, said the university's overarching goal "is to make sure we're doing our best in preventing sexual violence. When it does happen, we want to make sure we have the best policies and best processes in place to deal with it in a fair way where people feel like they're heard and we can really support victims as they go through the process."
Attendees had the opportunity to meet USU's new Affirmative Action Equal Opportunity office director, Alison Adams-Perlac, who started Jan. 2; the university's new Title IX coordinator, Hilary Renshaw; and prevention specialist Emmalee Fishburn, among others.
Adams-Perlac was a guardian ad litem where she represented children in Utah's juvenile courts and investigated child abuse and neglect cases.
She has more than 10 years of experience in the Utah courts, including work on projects intended to address disparate impacts on minorities and underrepresented Utahns.
Earlier in her career, Adams-Perlac was director of the Utah Labor Commission, Antidiscrimination and Labor Division, where she oversaw enforcement of housing and employment anti-discrimination laws. She also served the Utah Administrative Office of the Courts as an associate general counsel.
Renshaw joined USU last fall, relocating from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she completed a law degree at Louisiana State University's Hebert Law Center. She also holds a master's degree in education leadership.
She worked several years as a middle school teacher in Utah and Louisiana and has held numerous volunteer roles in crisis centers and a domestic violence shelter.
"Together we can come up with really great procedures for our office so that means that students walk though the door, they feel like I know what's going to happen when I enter Title IX. I know that I'm going to be treated in a way that I'm heard and I'm understood and then I know what the investigation process is going to look like," Renshaw said.
Fishburn said she hopes the office can help students develop empathy for people who experiencing sexual violence.
"I just want to empower students to feel like they can create a safe living and learning environment for themselves, that they don't have to feel like it's only their faculty and staff that are tasked with creating that safe environment, but really they have the power and the ability to do something, to prevent problems from happening in their spaces," she said.
Fishburn said one thing she believes everyone needs to learn is the warning signs of an abusive relationship, or warning signs of someone being stalked.
"Really, one of my biggest goals in my job is just to help students feel more comfortable, and really faculty and staff, with having these kinds of conversations and recognizing that these are issues that we can actually do something about, so that we don't feel helpless or powerless to address them," she said,
Additionally, USU's victim advocacy office will offer its "Start by Believing" campaign this spring, which focuses on listening to and believing survivors of sexual assault, DeRito said.
"There's a lot of people who just don't know how to respond if someone discloses something to them. Often we're well meaning but we say things that can discourage a victim from going to the police or going to Title IX. So we have a campaign aimed and at helping people understand how to respond," DeRito said.
Online information on USU's Sexual Assault and Antiviolence website, which helps users get help, give help and get information.
The university seeks to prevent sexual violence in all of its forms, DeRito said, whether it's sexual harassment, stalking, dating violence or sexual assault.Comment on this story
"The first thing we do is try to educate students to know when something isn't right and to be active bystanders. Research shows the best that's the best way to do prevention work so we spend a lot of time doing that," DeRito said.
When a sexual assault or other offense occurs, the university strives to surround victims with the resources they need to heal, she said. Some people may just want counseling or to talk to an advocate, and don't feel comfortable going to police.
"Whatever their choices are, we respect that and we just want to make sure they know what their options are and that they're easy to get to," she said.