Sexual assault advocate to serve as focal point for students

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After a lengthy nationwide search process, the campus has selected its candidate to take on the newly created role of director of sexual assault prevention and student advocacy within the dean of students office.

Mari Knuth-Bouracee will be the campus’s first director of sexual assault prevention. Following in the footsteps of other UC campuses, this is the first time UC Berkeley has ever created a full-time advocate position. One of the main goals for the job is to act as a resource for survivors of sexual assault and help them navigate the process of reporting and coordinating between other campus entities.

Knuth-Bouracee has worked in similar positions for more than eight years at other universities, including Boston College and UC Davis. In Boston, she worked within the Boston College Sexual Assault Network. Her most recent position was at UC Davis, where she served as the interim director and assistant director for outreach at the UC Davis Women’s Resource and Research Center.

For students looking to report sexual assault and harassment, there are a number of campus contacts that handle these cases, including the Office for the Prevention for Harassment and Discrimination, the Center for Student Conduct, UCPD and Berkeley Police Department. ASUC Student Advocate Rishi Ahuja, who was deeply involved in the hiring process, emphasized how sexual assault survivors may find navigating the campus bureaucracy overwhelming.

Ahuja said that with so many different resources for students to reach out to in cases of sexual assault, both administrators and student advocates started to consider creating a professional role — similar to those created in other campuses — that would be a campus expert in these matters.

“At the end of the day, we are students,” Ahuja said. “We are not trained and equipped to handle these cases (on our own).”

This summer, Ahuja served on a search committee with ASUC Senator Haley Broder and other administrators to find a candidate who could fulfill this role. After a preliminary nationwide search process, the search was narrowed down to Knuth-Bouracee and three other individuals. The four candidates were then invited to the UC Berkeley campus to be interviewed by administrative members and students during a three-day open forum.

“(Knuth-Bouracee’s) professional knowledge combined with her interpersonal skill resonated with students and staff in their feedback,” said Associate Dean of Students David Surratt in an email. “She had a great balance of competence and compassion in how she connected with everyone during her interview.”

In her new role, Knuth-Bouracee will be primarily responsible for serving as a confidential resource and focal point for coordination. Her hiring comes in the wake of accusations that the university and the campus have not done enough to serve sexual assault survivors.

“My highest priority upon joining UC Berkeley will be to provide empowering and effective support to survivors of violence,” Knuth-Bouracee said in a statement. “It will be essential that I become familiar with UC Berkeley, build relationships across campus and within the local community, and maximize opportunities for collaboration.”

In a state audit released in June, reports showed that although staff who hold central roles in the sexual assault reporting process were adequately trained, some employees — including those considered a primary contact for sexual assault survivors — had not received proper training.

In her role, Knuth-Bouracee can help students navigate campus resources. One of those entities is the Tang Center, which plans to work in close contact with Knuth-Bouracee.

“Having a more collaborative approach may decrease the number of times a survivor must tell their story to different people,” said Paula Flamm, the social services director for the Tang Center.

Flamm added that she, along with other counselors, will be sure to make Knuth-Bouracee’s services are known to students who have been sexually assaulted and that the students will then have full control over what extent they want to collaborate with these various resources.

Surratt explained that Knuth-Bouracee will serve as an educator to students as well as a confidential resource for survivors in addition to pre-existing campus services, such as counselors from the Tang Center.

Even though this newly implemented role has been met with praise, some say it is too much responsibility to fold into one position.

“They have given her a position that is impossible for one person to do,” said Meghan Warner, director of the ASUC Sexual Assault Commission and a sexual assault survivor. “People are aware of this tough task, though, and our end goal is to hopefully soon open an entire center and have more employees.”

ASUC Senator Haley Broder echoed Warner’s sentiments and said the campus needs to move toward building a larger office that can serve as a “one-stop shop” for survivors.

“The job description alone is more than three people’s work,” Broder said in an email. “We need more (people) hired as soon as possible if we want to truly support survivors and create an effective center.”

Knuth-Bouracee officially stepped into her role Oct. 27.

Becca Benham covers academics and administration. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @beccabenhamdc.