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UMBC, STEM and #MeToo

In the wake of the internationally recognized #MeToo movement, which primarily highlights sexual assault cases in the arts, a new movement is coming to light called #UsToo. #UsToo calls attention to the sexual harassment that occurs in the sciences and emphasizes the scope of the overarching movement.

Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, particularly on college campuses. Often times, campuses do not make students aware of the resources they offer. Particularly in the STEM fields, students may be afraid that no one will believe them and will “just keep quiet and suffer through it,” according to Linda Wang, a reporter at Chemical and Engineering News. “Some of the women that we talked to, they [even] left chemistry because of the harassment that they experienced.”

According to the UMBC Clery Report, 12 instances of stalking, nine instances of dating violence and four instances of rape took place on the UMBC campus in 2016. More recently, according to Jess Myers, the director of the Women’s Center, the Center’s staff has had 44 conversations about sexual assault with students, faculty and other staff members since July 2017.

This number, especially in light of the attention gained through the #MeToo movement, seems low to Myers. “I think it can be particularly challenging [to report cases of sexual assault], especially for people who identify as women in STEM, because they’re already a minority in the field,” said Myers. “There’s less of a physical representation of #MeToo [in STEM fields], of even being able to consult or reach out to other people for help or support.”

There are two major outreach centers on campus working to provide comfort and advice to those affected by sexual assault: the Women’s Center and a new student organization called We Believe You. This group, advised by Myers, is the first student organization looking to directly impact those who have been affected by sexual assault on campus. The group works on and off-campus, volunteering to bring a greater awareness to resources available to survivors.

UMBC currently only requires incoming freshman to complete an online sexual assault training module called Haven. The training is designed to teach students about the general extent of sexual assault and focuses mostly on consent and red flags in relationships.

While there are no required sexual assault trainings held for upperclassmen, Aliya Webermann, a research assistant at UMBC, would like to see that changed. She is currently working on a petition to mandate in-person sexual assault awareness training.    

Myers agrees with this work, explaining that there is a lot more in-person outreach UMBC could be doing as a whole. Personally, she would like to see more restorative justice practices implemented on campus. Restorative justice is an approach to conflict resolution that focuses on rebuilding the relationship between the perpetrator, the survivor and the surrounding community.

This mode of justice is currently implemented in Residential Life councils on campus, but it remains a very controversial aspect of the disciplinary process. To rebuild a relationship, each member of the community needs to be cognizant of their place and the consequences of their actions within said community.

Most importantly, they need to want to do better and then deliver on that promise. While it may be important to have a conversation with the perpetrator, the perpetrator could view the conversation as a joke or something not worth their time. This would negate the community building properties of restorative justice.

What is probably most crucial now, especially within STEM fields, is what Myers calls “institutional courage.” While change in Hollywood may start with one woman coming forward, change at UMBC is going to take time and the recognition of those with the power to actually implement large-scale projects and initiatives. It will take these people asking “are we doing enough?” to enact real change.