Vouching for victims of violence
Renee McNamara sits in her office on the fourth floor of the Union, spending her day on ordinary tasks like taking phone calls and attending meetings. Like most faculty on campus, the core of her job is to help students. But what she does is slightly different than most others: rather than dealing with academics, she deals with violence.
McNamara is the UNT Survivor Advocate, meaning she works with students who have experienced any sort of violence and connects them to campus or local resources. She also advocates for them by talking to professors about class absences, and if the student wants, she can accompany them to things like counseling appointments or meetings with the police.
“We are trying to raise awareness so students know we are here,” McNamara said. “We want them to know all their options, rights and resources.”
Dean of Students Maureen McGuinness performed the tasks of the survivor advocate before McNamara was hired. But with a number of students coming in for help, it became evident that the university needed a person dedicated to the cause.
“We were starting to see an increase of students who needed assistance if they were a victim of any violence,” McGuinness said.
At the time, McNamara had been an academic adviser for almost seven years in what was then the College of Public Affairs and Community Service. She got her master’s in counseling, studied violence for her graduate work and interned at Denton County Friends of the Family, an organization that provides care for people affected by violence.
All of that, combined with her experience working with college students, made her the ideal person for the job. Two years ago McGuinness hired McNamara as the first and only full-time survivor advocate. Her current graduate assistant, Audrey Malacara, works as the part-time survivor advocate. Most of the students they work with have faced sexual violence, intimate partner violence or stalking.
“We want students to know there’s people who care about them and want to help them through whatever they’re experiencing,” McNamara said. “We want them to know that we take this very seriously.”
The process of helping someone depends on what happened to them and what action they want to take. Some may want to see what options are available with the police department or Student Legal Services, some may want to start counseling and some may not want to take any action at all.
“I’ll never force a student to do anything they’re not comfortable with,” McNamara said. “My job is simply to say what is available and to help in whatever way I can.”
When a student does want to take action, McNamara has connections from her current role as the survivor advocate and her past role as an adviser. She continues to increase her presence with things like going to faculty meetings, collaborating with organizations, visiting classes and using social media.
“A big part of my role is building partnerships and relationships across campus,” McNamara said. “So when I reach out to professors on behalf of a student, they understand where I’m coming from.”
What she does is not limited to just the victims. People have come in to speak with her about concerns for a friend or family member, and victims occasionally bring someone along during their consultation with McNamara. She hopes this can be an example of how violence is relevant even to those who have not experienced it.
When a student experiences violence, they can report it to the Dean of Students, the campus Title IX Coordinator or UNT Police. An investigation will begin upon the student’s request, which will include looking into violations of the Code of Conduct if the aggressor was a student.
Title IX, the federal law that prevents educational institutes from discriminating based on sex, protects victims of violence. Students cannot be forced to share spaces, such as dorms or classrooms, with their assailant. Schools also cannot retaliate against students filing a complaint and must have established procedures for dealing with sexual discrimination, violence and harassment.
In addition, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act requires colleges and universities to educate staff, faculty and students on the prevention of occurrences such as rape, dating violence and sexual assault. UNT complies with this law through Haven, the online program for educating students on things like healthy relationships, consent and bystander intervention.
Students may not realize that initiatives like Haven help create a safe environment and inform people about the potential dangers they may face. In the Department of Justice’s 2005 Criminal Victimization report, they found that approximately 2 out 3 rapes were committed by someone the victim knew. They also found that 38 percent of rapists are a friend or acquaintance and 28 percent are an intimate partner.
When it comes to UNT, McNamara hopes she can continue to raise awareness about her role so students in need know where to reach out. She wants to create a space that promotes safety, support and empathy.
“I want students to know there’s people who care and want to help them,” McNamara said. “I want them to know they’re not alone.”
Featured Image: Renee LeClaire McNamara. Courtesy
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