A woman speaks at a microphone in front of a group of seated students. Behind her is a backdrop of t-shirts in different colors and a sign that reads "Take Back the Night."

Retriever Courage partners take stock of community work to prevent and respond to sexual assault

Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a national campaign focused on preventing sexual assault, harassment, and abuse, and it’s a month of great significance for the UMBC community. This year’s programming at UMBC is especially meaningful as the University responds to a call by students, faculty, and staff to do more to prevent sexual assault and other forms of sexual misconduct.

Retriever Courage: Speak, listen, learn, act

Retriever Courage was formed in fall 2018 in response to specific recommendations from students, faculty, and staff on how the university administration could improve community safety and wellbeing. The initiative outlined a shared governance process to better prevent and respond to sexual assault and other forms of sexual misconduct in ways that are inclusive, proactive, caring, and transparent.

This work involves dozens of partners across the university. They include the University Steering Committee, Retriever Courage Implementation Team, student and faculty/staff advisory committees, a prevention and response training implementation team, and procurement groups that assisted with the selection of an external consultant team now reviewing all related UMBC policies, practices, and resources.

“The thoughtful efforts of students, and the responsiveness of the University administration, faculty, and staff has been groundbreaking,” says University Steering Committee Chair Adam Harvey ’17, Ph.D. ’21, physics, who also serves as vice president of the Graduate Student Association. “Retriever Courage is beginning to transform the culture at UMBC and how people support each other in the campus community.”

At the same time, Retriever Courage partners say continuing to increase campus-wide involvement is critical to the long-term work of creating lasting change and growing a community where everyone feels safe and supported.

Preventing sexual violence and misconduct is a collective and ongoing responsibility,” says Susan McDonough, associate professor of history, and affiliate faculty of gender, women’s, and sexuality studies.

McDonough serves as faculty co-chair for the Retriever Courage Faculty/Staff Advisory Committee. She shares, “We have joined together to show up and do what we do best – to learn about the history of our own policies and practices, to research ways that other institutions have tackled these issues, and to educate for awareness and prevention.”

“Sexual violence is not a special interest issue, but rather a social justice issue that impacts us all,” says Student Advisory Committee Co-chair Aliya Weberman Ph.D. 21, clinical and community psychology. “Whether it is attending a Sexual Assault Awareness Month event, such as Take Back the Night; joining a group or committee working on these issues, such as We Believe You or Retriever Courage; or just telling someone impacted by sexual violence that you believe them and it’s not their fault; we can all make a difference.”

A group of students and other university community members walks through the university, carrying signs in support of women and survivors of sexual violence.
Take Back the Night march through campus. Photo courtesy of the Women’s Center at UMBC.

Commitment to action

Committee members share that several Retriever Courage projects directly responding to UMBC community input have been completed or are underway.

UMBC is currently distributing new campus ID cards that prominently display emergency resource information, and two Retriever Courage displays, including both on- and off-campus resources, were installed in The Commons. The displays are part of a pilot project proposed by the student activist/advocacy group We Believe You.

A display board in a university building shares information on Retriever Courage, with space for informational pamphlets below. Toward its left is a pillar with flyers promoting additional events and resources.
A new Retriever Courage display in the UMBC Commons includes both on- and off-campus resources. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.

UMBC hired Jody Shipper, J.D., and Cherie Scricca, Ed.D. of Grand River Solutions, Inc. to work with Retriever Courage partners and the UMBC community during the spring semester. The consultants are reviewing UMBC policies, practices, and resources related to sexual assault prevention and response, and will share their recommendations in May.

Over 2,000 UMBC community members have participated in mandatory, in-person Title IX/sexual misconduct prevention and response training since December, and faculty and staff also completed a complementary online training. About 200 students are participating in an in-person pilot training project in April that will help determine a plan for training all students.

Facilities Management also continues to repair and add lighting in areas of concern to students.

Elle Everhart, staff co-chair of the Faculty-Staff Advisory Group and program management specialist in gender, women’s, and sexuality studies, says, “We are only just beginning to address the broader issues of toxic masculinity and rape culture on our campus, but the work done to date is a strong first step.”

“A 365-days-a-year undertaking”

As this work moves forward, the Retriever Courage partners are continually thinking about how the university can better support survivors of all identities and experiences. “We truly all know survivors whether we know them by name or not,” says Jess Myers, director of UMBC’s Women’s Center. “Our efforts to support survivors and cultivate a survivor-responsive campus need to be a 365-days-a-year undertaking,” Myers adds. “We all are responsible for this work.”

Implementation Team Co-Chair and Vice President for Student Affairs Nancy Young feels heartened by the work to date and committed to the work ahead. “We are encouraged by the engagement and collaborative spirit of our Retriever Courage partners and the UMBC community,” she shares. “The safety and wellbeing of our students and our entire community have been and must remain our priority in the long term.”

“The work of Retriever Courage is just the beginning,” says Young. “We encourage everyone to be involved as we make broader and far-reaching improvements in order to have a lasting impact.”

The UMBC community is invited to participate in Sexual Assault Awareness Month workshops and events organized by the Women’s Center and campus partners, including Take Back the Night on Thursday, April 18, 6 to 9 p.m.

UMBC community members can also get involved with Retriever Courage by contacting committee members and learning other ways to help prevent and respond to sexual violence/misconduct at UMBC.

Featured photo: A Take Back the Night survivor speak-out event. Photo courtesy of the Women’s Center at UMBC.