How UT got it right on sexual assault

How UT got it right on sexual assault
Photo by Gabriel Cristóver Pérez

Photo by Gabriel Cristóver Pérez

More than 50 colleges are currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for mishandling sexual assault cases. But right now at the University of Texas at Austin, we’re seeing a model for how college administrations should handle these cases: by supporting survivors from the very beginning.

Head football coach Charlie Strong may be the best inoculation against a culture of rape on campus that we’ve seen in our 40 years of providing services to the survivors of sexual assault. Three of Strong’s five core principles relate directly to abuse or the actions that lead to it: respect women, don’t use guns and avoid drugs.

Strong deserves credit for naming these behaviors and following through with immediate suspensions of Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander from the team (as well as several other players who couldn’t meet these expectations, which are, let’s be honest, not exactly a high bar to clear). The suspensions send a powerful message across the multimillion-dollar Longhorn football universe: Respect for women is a prerequisite for playing football for the university.

This was followed by a public statement from UT-Austin President Bill Powers in which he backed up the coach and said the university “vigorously investigate[s] all allegations so we can take the appropriate action.”

This is where change begins: at the top. Right now in the U.S., only three out of every 100 rapists ever receives any jail time. The news this summer has been full of stories of colleges where a culture of suspicion, silence and intimidation was devastating for women who reported sexual assaults.

On too many campuses, victims don’t believe their allegations will be taken seriously, so they don’t report them at all — which allows rapists to attack again and again (an average of six times, according to aggregate research). Make no mistake: UT-Austin is no exception, at least not yet — while one in five women report being sexually assaulted in their time at college, only nine cases of sexual assault have been reported to UT-Austin police in the past four years.

Yet the repercussions of these strong statements from leadership are already being felt at the university. TheHouston Chronicle reported that the school has experienced “sharp growth” in allegations of sexual assault since the story broke. That’s what happens when victims begin to trust in a system that treats their experiences as crimes rather than misunderstandings that are best swept under the rug.

But there’s another piece to the UT-Austin story that deserves attention. According to Powers’ statement, every student on campus receives sexual assault prevention training. The Austin American-Statesman reported that the first call to police in this case came from a bystander, who reported a “crying, barefoot and ‘disheveled’” woman in the dorm lobby. That shows that some anonymous student took the time to recognize his or her responsibility to get help for a woman in distress.

I don’t know if you can trace that back to the training that students received or not. But I do know that an essential piece in creating a culture of accountability is to train bystanders to recognize their role in preventing assaults and supporting survivors. Would the police have been called if this incident had happened on another campus? With an 18 percent rate of report on Texas campuses, the answer to that question is all too clear.

College campuses should be a home away from home for their students. Unfortunately, at schools in Texas and across the nation, the focus of a sexual assault investigation too often centers on what a victim was wearing, how much she had to drink, or whether she really did want to have sex and now just feels bad about it.

But with their recent words, and in working to ensure that students and staff are prepared to respond to sexual assault with sensitivity, respect and accountability — regardless of who the perpetrators are — Powers and Strong set an example for the rest of the country.

Let’s all hope that what starts here changes the world.

This story originally appeared on

Say Something

Say Something

Photo by Keith Allison from Owings Mills, USAEmily Rudenick LeBlanc, LPC-S

Director of Community Advocacy, SafePlace

“It’s not for me to say.”

Those are the words Baltimore Raven’s Coach John Harbaugh offered reporters Tuesday in response to questions about what will happen to Ray Rice, the team’s star running back, as a result of beating his fiancé until she was unconscious. The coach continued with, “There are many sides to every story,” according to the Washington Post.

There is video evidence of Mr. Rice dragging his victim’s limp body out of an elevator after the assault. He doesn’t deny an assault took place, but rather calls the assault mutual. Having seen the video, there’s not much mutuality in one person dragging the unconscious body of another. Despite more evidence than we ever see in domestic violence assaults, Mr. Rice will not serve a day in jail. Rather, he will participate in a pretrial intervention program to avoid trial on aggravated assault charges.

There is very little uncommon about this case other than Mr. Rice’s celebrity and the video evidence of the crime. I’ve seen hundreds of domestic violence cases result in no jail time for the perpetrator. I’ve seen hundreds of cases in which the victim tries to take responsibility for the assault herself and wants the charges dropped altogether. That is precisely the reason that these cases are brought by the state and not by the victim. The reasons a victim may want charges dropped are many. She often loves the perpetrator, depends on him financially, has been threatened with more abuse or with harm to people she loves if she does not try to get the charges dropped. Ultimately, the victim’s conflicted feelings for the perpetrator have no bearing on whether or not a crime occurred or on whether or not it was acceptable behavior.

My purpose today is not to argue the sentence or to judge pretrial intervention programs versus time served. Nor is my purpose to judge the victim’s participation or lack thereof in the prosecution of the crime. As an advocate who devotes her career to understanding the cycle of violence and helping others do the same, I know that the dynamics of domestic violence are complicated and the mechanisms of power and control used by abusers are strong and effective.

What I take issue with today is the idea that “it’s not for me to say” that what happened here is wrong. Have we really reached a point in our culture in which we cannot agree that beating another human being until she is unconscious is inherently wrong? There are many issues in our world that cannot be seen as black and white–I get that– but this seems like pretty clear moral territory.

If Mr. Rice were the victim here and had been beaten unconscious by a bigger, stronger man on the street (assuming said man wasn’t a star football player), would the coach still think it’s not for him to say? We don’t make such allowances for any other crimes, so what makes sexual and domestic violence so different? When someone is killed by a drunk driver, we don’t stay quiet because “there are many sides to every story.”

When is it for us to say that someone should be accountable for abusive behavior? We are, after all, setting the standard of what will be acceptable to our kids and grandkids. Do we want our little girls to believe that their life is somehow less valuable because of their gender? Do we want our little boys to believe that it is okay for them to beat others unconscious, as long as their victims are women? Even more, do we want them to believe that if they are just famous enough or play the right sport, it’s okay for them to lose their sense of right and wrong? As a mother to a little girl and soon to be little boy, I think it is for me to say.

It is for me to say that what happened to Ms. Palmer is not okay. It’s reprehensible, disgusting and abusive and won’t be tolerated in my world. It is for me to say that my little girl and my little boy are equally deserving of healthy, loving relationships. It is for me to say that when we watch football together, we will talk about how sports are fun, but that each player is more than his skill on the field. We will talk about character and integrity and how we are all responsible for helping the next generation of boys and girls learn right from wrong. We will talk about power—the power of race, gender, class, and privilege, the power of grown-ups, teachers and coaches—and how we all have a responsibility to use our own power respectfully to stand up for what is right.

I grew up playing sports and was lucky enough to have a coach who not only believed in me and challenged me to be better than I thought I could be athletically, but also taught me about character, respect, and accountability. When something wasn’t right, coach said so, even if it meant angering the other coaches. More importantly, he stood up for all of the little girls on the field, regardless of which team they were on, and made sure that we were treated with the respect we deserved.

Coach Harbaugh, it is for you to say. It is for all of us to say that interpersonal violence is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. To say otherwise is to be complicit in perpetuating the very cycle of violence that allowed the assault in the first place. You are in a unique position to set an example for millions of boys and men and girls and women about what real masculinity looks like. Use it. Use your power to show the world that strong men don’t hit, punch or strangle and honorable men aren’t afraid to stand up to the masses when it’s the right thing to do. You see, coach, interpersonal violence is about power and control. And any of us who make excuses for or turn a blind eye to such violence are ourselves misusing our power and giving control to those who don’t deserve it.

There are more important things than winning the Super Bowl. Let your legacy be one of integrity—there isn’t a ring or salary big enough to give you that. The great thing about life, just like football, is you often get a second chance. So let’s call this second and ten. This time say something. Better yet, do something. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233 in case you need it at the next press conference.

Meet Jake

Meet Jake

Meet Jake*. He’s 8, and he just finished the 3rd grade.

We’d show you a picture of his face, but we can’t — for his own safety and the safety of his family. They came to the shelter at SafePlace right before spring break and have been here ever since.

So Jake isn’t waking up in his own bed anymore. Instead, his family is sleeping all together in one room, and making their meals in a kitchen they share with four other families. When his family came to the shelter, he had to leave everything behind – his friends, his bike, his toys, his house, his neighborhood.

The good news is that his family is safe, and they’ve begun a journey toward a life at home that will be safer and happier for everyone. And Jake is spending his summer with our specialized children’s staff, trained in ways to serve the complex social and emotional needs of kids recovering from trauma.

But that’s pretty hard for an 8-year-old to understand.

Jake has had a rough year, and we think that he and the other kids who are living on our campus deserve to have a great summer. They deserve some time to forget about where they’re living for a while and just be kids. They deserve to stop for snow cones, to jump into icy water, to enjoy a loud movie in an overly-air-conditioned theater. So many kids on our campus have never experienced these simple summer pleasures before. Now, more than ever, they deserve to have a summer that helps them connect, grow, and heal.

Can you help make that happen? SafePlace’s budget covers our trained staff, therapeutic and academic enrichment activities, transportation, food, and supplies. We need your help to cover the other costs of summer – pool entrance fees, movie tickets, treats and snacks – that help make great memories for kids.

Right now, thanks to a generous matching fund from SafePlace Development Council member Tricia Teegardin Edwards, every gift to support summer at SafePlace will be doubled, up to $5,000. So you can treat twice as many kids like Jake to ice cream or a day at the pool!

$50 pays for snow cones for 15 kids. 

$100 pays for a day at Barton Springs for 20 kids. 

$250 buys swimsuits and sunscreen for 10 kids. 

$500 rents kayaks and buys snacks for 30 kids.

Click here to make a gift. Or…

Start your own #SponsorSummer campaign and get your friends in on the fun! Set your goal – would you like to send 20 kids bowling ($150) or take 25 kids to the movies ($250)? Click here to get started!

We’ll also gratefully accept gift cards! Please email Steven Olender if you would like to make a donation of gift cards for ice cream, activities, swimsuits, clothing or supplies.

Jake and the other kids on our campus have been through a lot in their young lives. Please help give them a summer just to be kids.

How do you get two men to talk about violence?

How do you get two men to talk about violence?

Ask them to make flowers.
Barri Rosenbluth, the director of SafePlace’s Expect Respect program, was a little surprised when the City of Austin approached her about participating in a litter prevention program. But she knew that the themes of respect – for people as well as for the environment – were universal.

And so this spring, Expect Respect launched a large-scale free community art project that links messages about positive relationships with ideas about litter prevention and respect for the world around us.
At workshops and farmers markets across Austin, people are invited to make a flower from recycled plastic bottles.  As they make their flowers, they’re asked to tell others about a positive relationship in their lives. “It gets people thinking about how they define what that means,” explains Barri. “The simple idea is to talk to people about these issues, while also making art.”

The project was planned in collaboration with local artist Susan Slomowitz, and the flowers will ultimately be used to decorate a bridge at 10th and Red River over Waller Creek. The project is part of the Waller Creek Watershed Protection Plan.

Beautifying Austin and spreading a message about litter prevention is great. But what really matters to Barri is the opportunity to make a connection with people about issues that don’t ordinarily get discussed. “What’s amazing is that people are disclosing some very deep secrets and truths, as they cut and paint their flowers,” she said. “I was with two men, who were complete strangers to each other, talking about how violence had shaped and affected their lives. One man had been abused as a child. Another had grown up witnessing the abuse of his mother – and he reported that he then went on to abuse women himself. Their presence there, and their willingness to talk about these issues with each other, is exactly the kind of change we want to make.”

Please help us decorate the bridge! We’re hosting three days of flower-making workshops at SafePlace:

   Tuesday, June 3 (10 am-4 pm)

   Wednesday, June 4 (2-5 pm)

   Friday, June 6 (10-3 pm)

An unveiling is planned for September, and everyone will be invited to attend and pick out their flower. Let’s make Austin beautiful both inside and out!

Great New Video about Our Work

The wonderful folks at the Media Awareness Project worked with kids in Austin Middle Schools last fall on a terrific video about SafePlace’s work and our ultimate goal to end violence. Take a look!


Antoinette Moore –2014 Frankie Fowler Volunteer of the Year

Antoinette Moore –2014 Frankie Fowler Volunteer of the Year

By Langa, Volunteer Services Manager

Antoinette MooreAntoinette Moore is a natural leader, creative thinker, and strategic problem solver. She’s highly committed, generous and a persistent optimist. For a volunteer who joined the SafePlace community in June of 2012, you wouldn’t know it by the incredible accomplishments she’s carried out in just two short years. In that time she has served as a Shelter Clinic volunteer, HouseSupport volunteer and Volunteer Leadership Committee Team Building Coordinator.

In her initial role at SafePlace, during the brief time that SafePlace had a Clinic Volunteer position open at the clinic, Antoinette was our one and only volunteer and she was incredible. She was patient, flexible, and supportive and handled everything with the sense of humor that this volunteer position required. The clients adored her. This position was short lived due to a decision by clinic staff to discontinue SafePlace volunteer engagement. Antoinette’s role set the bar for best practices and expectations for this sensitive volunteer position. With the clinic volunteer position ending, Antoinette joined the Shelter House Support volunteer program. She thrived in the shelter, as she was proactive, quick on her feet and solid in her boundaries with clients. Staff appreciated her clear communication and her positive approach even in challenging situations. When she learned that Shelter clients wanted more books to read, she came up with an idea of having a bookcase in the laundry room for families to take books. She began fundraising to generate funds for this literacy project. Ultimately, a book cart was donated to the library project from Children’s Services so Antoinette decided to donate the $300 plus dollars she raised to Children’s Services, to be used for book marks and special request books for the children.

In addition to her volunteer work at the Shelter, Antoinette has also serves on the Volunteer Leadership Committee (VLC) whose mission is to encourage a sense of community among SafePlace volunteers. The VLC plans the annual SafePlace Volunteer Celebration Event. For a second year in a row Antoinette has served as the chair of the decoration committee and also secured high value door prizes for volunteers attending the event. Her contributions helped to transform the Community Room into a relaxed, festive and fun party venue where volunteers felt appreciated and celebrated.

Beginning in 2013 Antoinette began to expand her role from the VLC Committee toward the role of VLC Team Building Coordinator in which she organized monthly Volunteer Projects involving all SafePlace volunteers and benefiting a variety of programs at SafePlace. Some of the most impactful of monthly projects that Antoinette organized were focused on children. They included a Trunk or Treat Halloween carnival event which benefitted over 90 children. Antoinette organized a group of volunteers that came dressed up and ready to run a fun booth/activity for the children. She ordered prizes, created the games and booths, and even thought to bring snacks for the children. Children’s Services staff discussed the idea with Antoinette and she ran with it. “Antoinette has terrific initiative. Her enthusiasm and energy makes it very easy to work with her. Each time she has done a great job of scheduling the event, communicating with me and the VLC group. She is very comfortable in a leadership role with the VLC group, so when the group arrives she continues to be the contact and lead person for the event even though staff are present. This is very helpful. Each project she has coordinated, she has also found the resources to bring supplies to complete the project. She does not expect to go back to staff for supplies or resources, which again makes it very easy for staff to work with her and the VLC.” –Yvette Mendoza-Rouen, Children’s Services Director

Other monthly VLC Projects have included a Back to School Backpack stuffing project, holiday card writing campaign for Shelter clients, making Shelter welcome bags or decorating, prepping and securing donations for Life skills graduation and bolstering more community support for the Holiday Program. “Antoinette is constantly looking for new ways that she can improve the lives of people on our campus. She heard that our Shop for the Shelter program was getting less donations than we needed and was not okay with any SafePlace clients not getting the holiday gifts. When Antoinette approached me saying she wanted to make an Amazon registry for our holiday program, I thought it would be something small. Later that same day, she sent me a list with more than a hundred items and the gifts started rolling in after that. It’s amazing to see how much she cares and how hard she works for our clients.” –Steven Olender, Community Relations & Holiday Program Coordinator

It has been pleasure to work with Antoinette in her varied roles at SafePlace. She has been a tremendous asset to our organization and it has been exciting to watch her grow and become such a strong advocate for social change and specialized care for survivors of trauma. It is a delight to nominate her for the Frankie Fowler Volunteer of the Year Award.

Denim Day 2014

Denim Day 2014

2014 Denim Day Email HeaderDid you join us for Denim Day on April 23rd? On that day, all around the world, people wore denim to show that rape is NEVER about what the victim was wearing. The movement started after a 1998 case in Italy, when a judge overturned a rape conviction. He argued that the victim’s jeans were so tight, she must have helped the perpetrator to remove them.

People throughout the Austin area participated in Denim Day, sharing their pictures on our Facebook event page, e-mailing us, or posing for photos taken by SafePlace staff. We even had someone from as far as Alabama join in the Facebook event! Denim Day is something anyone can participate in, from wherever they happen to be!

Children's Services Staff

SafePlace Children’s Services Staff

Events like this one start conversations about sexual assault and rape culture. When we talk, social change happens.

And Denim Day wasn’t only about awareness! Many groups also turned it into a fundraiser to help us continue providing services to survivors. Thank you to everyone who made this another successful Denim Day.

Learn more about the Italian case in this fantastic video! Kelsey on our Deaf Services team tells the story in sign language—and the video is captioned for hearing audiences.


Volunteer Spotlight: Lacey and Donald

Volunteer Spotlight: Lacey and Donald

This past week, April 6-12, was National Volunteer Week!

While it is always important to recognize all that volunteers give to our organization, it’s wonderful to have a whole week dedicated to volunteer appreciation!

In 2013, 639 SafePlace volunteers gave their time, energy and support to domestic and sexual violence survivors. In honor of National Volunteer Week, two of our volunteers, Donald and Lacey, generously shared the story of how they came to SafePlace, and why volunteering here is something that anyone can do.

Lacey found SafePlace when she was researching volunteer opportunities, and Donald decided to tag along so they could spend the time together. They went through the 40 hour volunteer training more than a year ago, and although they began the training together, they have chosen to volunteer in different programs. Donald is a hospital advocate, on call for two to four shifts a month, and Lacey gives eight hours a month to grants research.

Becoming a hospital advocate sounded like an opportunity to bring positivity to someone’s life during a difficult time, and fit well with his professional goals—Donald, who wanted to work toward a helping career, is pursuing of a Master of Science in Nursing to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner.

But direct client care is not for everyone, and didn’t feel right for Lacey.

After meeting with Langa, our volunteer manager to talk through her options, and the different needs of the agency, Lacey realized researching grant opportunities would be a great use of her skills. She had found the way that she could help while also taking care of herself.

“If anyone is unsure, or just feeling on the fence about volunteering, there are a lot of different ways you can help,” Lacey says, and “There is a lot of support for volunteers here.”

The couple continue to find ways to give!  Donald and Lacey got married in March. Because their volunteer work at SafePlace has become such a big part of their lives, they wanted to find a way to include SafePlace in their wedding, and asked family and friends to donate to SafePlace in lieu of giving gifts.

March 2014

Photo Credit: Prima Luce Studios

Congratulations, Donald and Lacey! And thank you for all you have done and continue to do for SafePlace!

[If you’d like to share you experience as a SafePlace volunteer with us, please contact Communications Assistant Katey Gorski at]

Information about volunteering

2014 Statesman Capital 10,000

2014 Statesman Capital 10,000
SafePlace and Statesman staff together on race day!

SafePlace and Statesman staff together on race day!

The Statesman Capital 10,000 is one of the biggest road races in Texas, and an Austin tradition. SafePlace was fortunate to be the exclusive beneficiary of this year’s race.

SafePlace staff enjoyed a birds-eye view of the event from the top of the Sherry Matthews Advocacy Marketing building (shown in picture above: Director of Development Candace Lopez and Executive Director Julia Spann). The day itself may have been gray, but Sunday’s rain didn’t stop more than 17,500 runners — or thousands more who showed up to cheer them on!

Runners lining up!

Runners lining up!

Every one of those 17,500 runners had a part in supporting essential SafePlace services, which helped 5,453 adults and children escape, heal, and recover from violent homes and relationships in 2013. “Being selected as a Cap 10K beneficiary is not only a great honor, but it also has a significant impact on our ability to meet the enormous need for SafePlace services in the Austin community,” explained Executive Director Julia Spann.

A big THANK YOU to the Austin American-Statesman for choosing SafePlace as the 2014 beneficiary, and to everyone who made donations to SafePlace through this event!  We are grateful to live, work, and serve in such a generous community.

Julia Spann and Candace Lopez accepting the donation

Julia Spann and Candace Lopez accepting the donation

Learn more about the Statesman Capital 10,000 here.

Thanks for Making Illuminate Austin a Success!

Thanks for Making Illuminate Austin a Success!

After months of planning and hard work, Illuminate Austin was a huge success! From the time we decided to bring the walk back after a six year hiatus, SafePlace staff have been saying that the walk is a visual representation of Austin’s support for domestic violence and sexual assault victims and survivors, their families, and for the work we do. Because it was the first year back, we set our goal at 500 attendees, and saw more than 800 people on the day!

We loved seeing how different teams chose to show solidarity. Many came out in their Illuminate Austin T-shirts, or wearing their corporate logos. One team came dressed as superheroes, while others wore shirts that honored family members lost to violence.  The contrast felt right for an event that was about memorial and celebration, that had both fun and solemn moments.

Before the walk, many people pinned their own stories, their reasons for walking to Betty’s Wall, the wall honoring the memory of Betty Beal (read Betty’s story here). Those stories on the wall, and all of the people who came on the day, were a visual of how many lives are touched by violence. There were 727 people registered the day before the event, and more showed up to walk on Saturday. The walk is a true community event that anybody could attend. There was a registration fee for those who wanted an Illuminate Austin shirt, but people were also more than welcome to come participate at no cost.

The walk included two loops around Mueller Lake, one in remembrance of victims, and one in celebration of survivors. The first loop of the walk began in the last moments of daylight. As the sun went down, the lights began to glimmer, reflecting off of Mueller Lake, and every part of the pathway around the water was crowded with people committed to ending abuse and violence.

Thanks to the efforts of our amazing teams and participants, we have already exceeded our fundraising goal and the Illuminate Austin donation page will remain live through March. Our volunteer Walk Committee also deserves a shout out for the months they put into bringing back the walk.

We look forward to making this an annual event that gets bigger and better each year.