August 8, 2019
Reason #462 I shouldn’t check Facebook before I head to bed.
Tonight, just as I was about to head up to bed, one of my colleagues posted an article from the Salt Lake Tribune about a safety statement professors at the U of U are expected to put their syllabi this fall. It appears the faculty and student senates came together to craft the language for the safety statement and both groups passed legislation requesting that the statement be “required” in all campus syllabi. I put required in quotes because requiring faculty to do anything is next to impossible, especially when it comes to our precious syllabi!
Historically, I have been a fan of syllabus statements and have appreciated the opportunity to tailor my syllabi to include information I think is important for students to consider/know/think about. I like it when people share language they use in their syllabi as something for me to consider. I include a land and labor statement in my syllabi as well as information about resilience and self-care (I teach some pretty emotionally heavy topics). I am a bit concerned about “requiring” faculty to put things in their syllabi because it could result in misinformation or a false sense of awareness about a topic we are actually unaware of. All of that said, my concerns this time are different.
I shared the Tribune article with a few of my concerns on my own Facebook timeline, and then worried about whether I’d offended the wrong people – that is, the people with power. I am going up for tenure and promotion this year, so I have some concerns about ruffling the wrong feathers. And I always have concerns about being a broken record that people stop listening to – being “that person” who is so “angry all the time.” But damn, there are plenty of things to be angry about! Ultimately, my need to speak up outweighed my concern to be quiet. Suffice it to say, the thoughts rolling around in my head, both about being heard and about how to do better, kept me up for a while…long enough to make me pull out my computer to write down my thoughts and feelings.
The statement we are required to put into our syllabi says, “The University of Utah values the safety of all campus community members. To report suspicious activity or to request a courtesy escort, call campus police at 801-585-COPS (801-585-2677). You will receive important emergency alerts and safety messages regarding campus safety via text message. For more information regarding safety and to view available training resources, including helpful videos, visit safeu.utah.edu.”
When I received the email indicating that this should be in our syllabi, a part of me thought, “hmmm…I wonder if this is about all of the women murdered by former intimate partners over the past year…” then, I thought, “no way…this says nothing about intimate partner violence. It can’t be. It must be just another ‘safety’ precaution box we’re checking to make the lawyers happy.” (Note: This summer, we were also required to watch a “safety” video that also said nothing directly about intimate partner violence (IPV), but was about “firearms on campus.” While firearms play a huge role in IPV, the video said nothing about this, so again, I assumed it was just a generic “safety” video…now I’m questioning that assumption.)
The article in the Tribune indicated that “The idea came out of a task force formed to focus on security after the murder of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey last fall. About a year before that, ChenWei Guo, an international student, was shot to death on campus. And since, two women — Sarah Hawley and MacKenzie Lueck — have been killed.” Three of these four deaths were murders committed by current and former intimate partners or people that these women were in relationship with.
So, here’s my concern: Yes, we must talk about safety. We must talk about violence in all of its forms. However, we’re doing a whole lot of talking about generic “safety” which actually doesn’t help in situations like these.
UT has an exceptionally high rate of intimate partner violence – statistics indicate that 1 in 3 women in UT will experience IPV; nationally, that number is closer to 1 in 4.
Additionally, more than half of women who die by homicide are killed by former or current intimate partners. This number likely includes cis and trans women, though we cannot be sure because many studies fail to account for the experiences of trans people. And although as a culture we do a horrific job of collecting data about the experiences of transgender people, we also know that violence directed at trans women is exceptionally high, especially trans women of color.
As I review the ideas put forth by safety task force after safety task force, as I sit in meetings with other well-intended people who genuinely want to make our campuses safer, very, very few of us are actually talking about safety as it relates to IPV. In fact, the very use of the word “safety” is likely a problem.
When people think of safety, especially “safety on campus,” they immediately jump to blue lights and pepper spray – things that are important to protect oneself from strangers. Ask the average woman student what they do to protect themselves on campus (which is a terrible question by the way…why must women “protect themselves”? But alas, another blog post for another day) and they will give you an elaborate list of all the things they do to protect themselves from strangers: never walk alone at night, carry mace, put my keys between my fingers, talk on the phone when I’m walking, DON’T talk on the phone while I’m walking. The list goes on and on. We know what we’re “supposed” to do to be safe. We don’t need a reminder. We’ve been taught since we were three years old what we should do to protect ourselves from strangers. Very, very few college women will talk about being aware of potential dating partners’ intentions. It just doesn’t cross most people’s minds when they think of “campus safety.”
So, what’s the harm in a campus safety statement like the one we include in our syllabi? Isn’t doing something better than nothing?
I’m not sure that it is. The reality is that we’re (unintentionally) re-enforcing the idea that people – especially women – should protect themselves from strangers by requesting escorts, not walking alone at night, among many other strategies, when strangers are not our biggest threat. The misinformation teaches students to be afraid of the wrong people and to trust the wrong people. This results in more harm. More lethality. Misinformation in the form of perpetuating myths is extremely dangerous.
However, when we challenge stranger danger safety strategies – when we call out well-intended strategies to address campus safety, we immediately get pushback. Stranger danger safety is the sacred cow of our campus – it makes people feel better because it’s easier. It’s easier to install more blue lights, increase campus escorts, and ask faculty to watch a 2 minute video about firearms than it is to face the reality that the most dangerous people in most women’s lives are also people who also claim to love them. That’s not a reality that any of us want to face, but we must.
As educators at institutions of higher education, we have a responsibility to do better. It is our (along with many others’) responsibility to make students aware that dating violence is a problem. Are we doing that? Maybe. Some of us are trying very hard. And we’re running up against a culture that doesn’t exactly make it easy. A culture that wants to believe that danger is “out there,” not “in here” and that if we take the “right” precautions, we will not be hurt.
How do we do better?
There are lots of ways, but one simple way that I would advocate for is that EVERY. SINGLE. TIME we discuss “safety,” we must note what “danger” really looks like. Sure, it’s important for people to remain aware of their surroundings and consider using a campus escort system. It’s also really, really, really important for us to name that domestic, interpersonal, and dating violence are extremely common in UT, and among college students, and that perpetrators do not discriminate – they target college women, middle class women, poor women, women of color, women with disabilities – they target all women. This is not an issue that only happens “out there.” It happens right here. Right now. All of the time. We have to be clear about this – not to scare students, but to give them accurate information about the realities of “safety” on campus. And possibly even more important, to help women who experience IPV know that their experience is real and not something they are imagining.
Here is the note I added in my syllabus to help with this:
*Note from Chris: As you think about this statement, please be mindful of what and how we have learned what “suspicious” is, being sure to consider how our biases related to race and immigration influence our perceptions of “suspicious.” Additionally, please remember that the vast majority of violence is committed by a person known to the victim – stranger violence is very rare. While stranger violence should be taken seriously, so should the threat of violence committed by people with whom we are in relationship.
So, the next time you find yourself wanting to warn students – especially women students – not to walk alone at night, be sure you also remind them to pay attention to their guts when they’re engaging with their “friends.” Remind them that it’s always important to be aware of their surroundings, AND most violence directed toward women comes from people they are in relationship with, not strangers.
And for goddesses’ sake, put whatever the heck you want in your syllabi – just make sure it’s accurate and clear!