UNH Sexual Violence Action Committee pushes for reform on campus


Rhianwen Watkins

The Sexual Violence Action Committee of New Hampshire (SVAC) is a new, student-run organization pushing for radical changes in the way college campuses handle issues of sexual misconduct. The committee, started by University of New Hampshire (UNH) students at the beginning of November, was formed in response to the lack of action being taken by UNH administration against cases of sexual harassment and assault on campus.

According to first-year College of Engineering and Physical Science student Kai Parlett, who is the coordinator of SVAC, the mission of the committee is “to build a community at UNH that is dedicated to both supporting survivors and ending rape and rape culture on college campuses in NH including UNH.” Parlett added that a main goal of SVAC is to push university administration to be proactive rather than reactive towards cases of sexual assault and harassment.

“I think it’s really important to acknowledge the interconnectivity and the marriage between supporting and creating a safe space for survivors and also taking proactive measures to end sexual assault on campus, because they’re not the same thing,” Parlett said. “We’re not going to be able to stop or prevent sexual assault if were just reacting to it after the fact.”

The students in charge of SVAC recently had a meeting with UNH administrators to present a list of action items they want to implement to change the way cases of sexual assault are handled on campus.

One of the first action items on this list, as stated in an Instagram post by @svac_at_unh on Nov. 4 was, “any student, faculty, or staff found to have committed any level of sexual offense under the preponderance standard in Title IX will be immediately removed from the University of New Hampshire community.”

Partlet explained that meeting the preponderance standard means that if a student or faculty member is found to be 51 percent guilty or higher of sexual misconduct in a civil trial, they will be immediately removed from the UNH campus.

A second action item SVAC is working to establish is increasing funding to the Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program (SHARPP) and eventually Title IX, both of which are understaffed, according to Partlett. Only three people are currently working for the Title IX office at UNH, Partlett said. SVAC also is working to implement strong background checks on all Resident Assistants (RAs) and faculty members.

According to Parlett, SVAC also told administrators that they want all emails regarding instances of sexual violence on campus to be reviewed by SHARPP before they are sent out to the student body. This is a response to the email that was sent out by President Dean on Oct. 25, which many students found insulting and invalidating toward survivors, who took to social media to share their personal or shared stories of sexual assault. In the email, Dean wrote, “There is often a great deal of conversation on social media in the aftermath of a reported incident, and much of what is shared on social media is simply not true.” He then sent out a second email following the protest that happened outside his house on Oct. 25 to clarify that he had no intention of silencing survivors. Parlett said that a member of SVAC asked Dean how many people looked over the first email before it was sent out, to which he responded, 12. She expressed her dissatisfaction with the fact that “a dozen people looked over it and nobody flagged it.” According to Parlett, it will be important to have members of SHARPP assess these emails so that nothing invalidating or triggering toward survivors are sent out by faculty.

Finally, SVAC is pushing to require UNH administrators to attend a mandatory conversation with professors in the Women’s and Gender Studies department to learn about gaslighting, victim-blaming and other silencing tactics used on survivors of sexual assault. Right after Dean’s email was sent out, the Women’s and Gender Studies department sent out their own email addressing the wording of his letter and expressing their support and solidarity with survivors.

“That was the first time that a lot of students really felt communicated with and heard and validated,” said Parlett. “So, we feel like those professors and that department would have a lot of good insight and a lot of good ways of communicating with the administrators.” SVAC’s mission statement includes the acknowledgment that Indigenous individuals are two and a half times more likely to experience sexual violence by white individuals than any other race. It also includes recognition of missing and murdered Indigenous women and a land acknowledgement recognizing the fact that UNH is located on Abenaki, Wabanaki and Pennacook land.

Many students on campus are looking forward to seeing what SVAC will achieve and have voiced their own hopes of what the organization will accomplish.

“I feel like there really hasn’t been much done, besides SHARPP,” said College of Health and Human Services junior Katelyn King. She added that she hopes SVAC will work together with administration to make sure that perpetrators of sexual violence are held accountable for their actions. “They shouldn’t be still walking around on campus.” Currently, Police Department and UNH investigations into sexual misconduct on campus are taking place.

First-year student Kaia Meredith said, “The problem I have is that women going into college are always briefed on what they should look out for.”

She explained that she feels men are seldom told to respect women’s autonomy and instead women are taught to avoid men’s misdemeanors. First-year student Melissa Gold said she is concerned that UNH is not adequately reprimanding perpetrators of sexual assault.

“I think the students know what’s going on more than the faculty just because they’re a part of that body, especially with the dorm systems,” said Meredith. “They don’t see us in our normal settings, so they don’t know anything about us really besides how we are in the classroom,” Gold added.

Dean issued a statement on Nov. 20, delivered by Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President for Community, Equity and Diversity, Nadine Petty, saying that President Dean requests an apology from students regarding the “disrespect” shown towards him at the Oct. 25 protest outside his house. He is refusing to meet with SVAC about sexual assault on campus until he receives one. The statement was posted on SVAC’s Instagram page along with a quote from first-year student, Elizabeth Miller.

“It concerns me that he seems to be more focused on his own personal offense from a small group of students than the safety of all students and makes me question his priorities as a president,” said Miller.

The Instagram post was filled with comments of dissatisfaction towards President Dean’s statement. Some students commented that they would like to see President Dean removed from his position.

President Dean’s statement and students’ dissatisfaction with it has become statewide news as Manchester Ink Link and New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR) have covered articles regarding the situation as of this week. SVAC encourages all students to get involved to help continue the fight in combating sexual assault on campus and to get justice for survivors.

Photo courtesy of SVAC.