Since it was established by the Women’s Center in the spring of 2004, Lehigh’s “Break the Silence” program has helped make the campus a safer place to discuss and report sexual violence and assault.
In six years, the peer education program has grown into one of the best of its kind. Other schools routinely contact Rita Jones, director of the Women’s Center, and Michelle Issadore, the center’s assistant director, to ask for advice.
Recently, Jones and Issadore learned that Break the Silence has been chosen to receive an award from NASPA, a premier professional association for student affairs administrators in higher education.
On March 9, at NASPA’s annual awards luncheon in Chicago, Lehigh will accept a silver medal in NASPA’s Excellence Award competition in the category for Violence Education and Prevention, Crisis Management, and Campus Security.
“This is a very impressive and well-deserved award for Break the Silence to receive,” says Allison Gulati, Lehigh’s associate dean of students. “Rita and Michelle have worked so hard to build this program into one of the best of its kind in the nation. It’s really nice to see all of their hard work, as well as that of all of their highly dedicated student volunteers, be recognized by NASPA.”
Made up entirely of trained Lehigh student volunteers, and advised by Issadore, the Break the Silence group works to create a dialogue about sexual violence on campus by educating students through a variety of programs.
Removing a stigma
“Break the Silence has grown into a successful program because of the partnerships we’ve been able to build across campus—including close connections with the Lehigh University Police Department, the Office of Student Conduct and students,” says Jones. “Our aim is to build awareness about sexual violence on this campus and to provide community members with knowledge about sexual violence, its context and iterations, and practical skills for each student to create the safe space we all desire.
“In order for this program to grow, we have had to reach out to different groups across campus and remove the stigma attached to talking about sexual violence and to teach our entire campus community that it’s cool to be involved in Break the Silence.”
Outreach is a significant component of Break the Silence. Since the fall of 2006, student educators have delivered an educational program about sexual assault on campus to all incoming first-year students during orientation weekend. The student educators plan the content of the sessions (termed “SATISFY: Sexual Assault: The Information Session for First Years”) and coordinate the sessions. In each session, incoming students learn about campus resources, how to create a safe environment by intervening in situations, and the legal and disciplinary ramifications of violating state and campus policies.
“It’s important from day one of every Lehigh student’s experience to educate them that sexual violence will not be tolerated at Lehigh,” says Issadore. “One of the key missions of the peer-to-peer education classes offered by Break the Silence is to give members of the Lehigh community the tools and confidence to intervene—rather than just be a bystander—when they see a situation that they believe could escalate into sexual violence.”
Break the Silence student volunteers also operate Lehigh’s Sexual Violence peer hotline, which offers students affected by sexual violence the opportunity to speak with a peer rather than a campus administrator. Based in the Women’s Center, the peer hotline is monitored by volunteers 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the fall and spring semesters. All information shared over the hotline is kept confidential, and the identity of the caller is anonymous.
“An excellent example of collaboration”
In addition to SATISFY and the 24-hour hotline, Break the Silence volunteers share information by:
--Presenting educational sessions to peers on sexual violence, relationship violence, stalking, harassment, and violent language and images in popular culture.
--Participating in National Stalking Awareness month.
--Co-organizing the campus’s annual “Take Back the Night” march.
--Volunteering in The Clothesline Project on campus.
“This award is a tribute to the work that Rita and Michelle have done and is an excellent example of what collaboration among groups from all over campus—the incredibly dedicated and caring Break the Silence student volunteers, the Women’s Center, the Lehigh Police Department, the Office of Student Conduct, the Council on Equity and Community as well as student organizations across campus—can accomplish,” says John Smeaton, vice provost for student affairs.
“The evolution of Break the Silence on this campus over the past six years has been nothing short of amazing and that growth will continue under Rita and Michelle’s stewardship.”
Issadore plans to continue looking for ways to improve Break the Silence.
“Our group never settles for what we are already doing,” she says. “We always push ourselves to learn about best practices and benchmark ourselves against top programs on other college campuses in hopes that we’ll continue to change, grow and improve.”