A spotlight on Georgia Southern’s Sexual Assault Response Team

Noelle Walker

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jodi Caldwell

The Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) began in 1999, initially to coordinate and establish response efforts for students who had been sexually assaulted, said Dr. Jodi Caldwell, chair of SART and psychologist for Georgia Southern University’s Counseling Center.

“Because at that time there was nothing in the community. No crisis center, no police guidance, no anything,” Caldwell said. “Over the years, we’ve come a long way. So that now our mission includes not only continuing to monitor response efforts, but also to educate the community on the realities of sexual violence and how individuals can reduce their risk of sexual violence as well as the cultural shifts that need to happen for sexual violence to diminish.”

SART also helped to mentor and create the Rape Crisis Center (RCC) that’s located in Statesboro and it now serves 10 counties, Caldwell said.

“Georgia Southern’s SART team was one of the first in the country. Over the years, our SART team has actually mentored other universities as they try to create their own SART teams,” Caldwell said.

Dr. Jodi Caldwell is the chair of the Sexual Assault Response Team. Photo courtesy of GS.

The team

SART is comprised of faculty and staff from throughout the community, Caldwell said. There are at least 35 people, and there at least 20 at the meetings.

The team is multidisciplinary, including representatives from the Counseling Center, Health Services, Equal Opportunity & Title IX, Housing, the Office of Student Activities and the Teal House, according to the SART webpage on the GS website.

“It isn’t a Counseling Center thing or a Student Affairs thing … It’s everybody,” Caldwell said.

The university is establishing SART on the Armstrong campus, because they have never had one before, Caldwell said.

Dr. Lauren Patterson, Sexual Assault Response Team Co-Chair and Sexual Assault Student Educators Advisor, said there are about 15 Armstong faculty and staff from various campuses that are going to be serving on SART.

“From the moment consolidation happened, SART has worked to host everything we have on this campus on the Armstrong campus as well,” Caldwell said.

A lot of campuses have a dedicated sexual violence center with staff, but there are no dedicated SART staff, Caldwell said. At GS, all members volunteer.

“Everybody that is a part of staff has a full-time Georgia Southern job. They do SART above and beyond their Georgia Southern job,” Caldwell said.

“We’re doing it because it’s important to us to provide to students,” Patterson said.

Events and other coordinations

SART sponsors the Rape Aggression Defense self defense course. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jodi Caldwell.

There are many events SART sponsors each year, including Sex Signals, It’s on Us Week, Sexual Assault Awareness Week, Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, Georgia Southern C.A.R.E.’s presentations and Rape Aggression Defense System (R.A.D).

“We’re pretty active and that’s not everything,” Patterson said.

A lot of the events SART sponsors are national campaigns as well, Caldwell said.

Patterson said they also teach at SASE training each semester, teaching students how to talk and educate their peers about sexual assault.

“Gemma Skuraton who is the health educator and is also on SART to help our athletic department be in compliance in NCAA have created a sexual assault curricula that all of our student athletes have to now go through,” Caldwell said.

Patterson said they are in the works of finishing up establishing a fraternity and sorority life curricula as well.

“Across the board our students tend to report enjoying and really learning a lot from all of our programming,” Patterson said.

Patterson said there is a Prevention of Men’s Violence Against Women Champion’s Committee, which is a sub-group of SART.

“It is men on campus that have social capital, that are leaders on this campus, coming together to really speak up against sexual violence,” Patterson said. “And so the idea of that is engaging men that students are encountering a lot that are really looked up to on this campus to help us and be a part of SART to help end sexual violence.”

SART’s effect

SART sponsors the Clothesline Project, a t-shirt display showing messages from people affected by violence. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jodi Caldwell

“I took SART over a year after it was founded in 2000. So we went from a committee of about four people with no yearly events,” Caldwell said. “Basically we were at the stage of literally just trying to get the city police to talk to the campus police so that when a student was sexually assaulted, investigations could be coordinated. So from no organization to the point we’re at now where we have a response protocol for our entire judicial circuit, we have a rape crisis center that participates in our meetings and all of our events. We have participation from every key office on campus as well as, you know, a ton of faculty. We have administrative support. We have a budget.”

Caldwell said right out of graduate school, she would have said she doesn’t want to work with sexual violence because she couldn’t go there, but then her boss said she needed to take over.

“It has really convinced me that it’s important to have a voice and be a voice for people who aren’t comfortable going into the emotionally difficult topics,” Caldwell said. “I think that on a day-to-day basis there are days where I can’t talk about sexual violence anymore because you start to see the world as nothing but sexual violence, and then there are days when a survivor comes forward at the Take Back the Night march and I’m completely humbled by not only what they have gone through but how they have thrived and come out stronger.”

Caldwell said she never stops being surprised at how vulnerable people are willing to be and come out.

Patterson first started being involved with SART in 2013 as a GS while she was working on her doctorate of psychology. She describes it as a passion project.

“I’ve always really wanted to do this work and been really committed to it which is why I’ve pursued opportunities to do it,” Patterson said. “I get a lot of intrinsic value from it. It’s one of my favorite parts of working for Georgia Southern that I can do this, and it’s the thing I do for free … That’s really what I get from it, a sense of personal satisfaction from making an impact.”

SART’s success

“There’s a lot of different schools of thought or approaches to sexual violence education that are out there,” Caldwell said. “I think why SART has been successful is because we really believe and come from the perspective that … this is not a women’s issue, that sexual violence impacts everybody. And it’s up to every person in the community to be aware of sexual violence and to be a part of ending sexual violence.”

SART has left a legacy in the Statesboro community with mentoring the local Rape Crisis Center as well as the forensic nursing program which is now a national program to do forensic medical exams, Caldwell said.

Caldwell said now there is a fully functioning rape crisis center and Child Advocacy center with close to $500,000 in grant funding, and that is something that started here.

Caldwell said SART has raised a lot of awareness.

“Across the board, our students tend to report enjoying and really learning a lot from all of our programming,” Patterson said.

Patterson has seen how events like RAD or Take Back the Night or even doing a T-shirt at The Clothesline Project can give people a sense of empowerment.

“It’s amazing then to get that feedback like ‘this was important to my life that this existed,’” Patterson said.

“I’ve seen it change people’s attitudes about sexual violence. I’ve seen it change how they look at what contributes to sexual violence. I’ve seen it really start the healing process,” Caldwell said.

Awards and recognitions

In 2018, representatives from the Sexual Assault Response Team, Sexual Assault Student Educators and Health Promotions were honored at the Leadership Awards Banquet at Georgia Southern University. Photo courtesy of SART.

“The team has been recognized for its outstanding breadth of activities at conferences and by well-known activists. In 2007, SART founded the Georgia College Sexual Assault Association Network to coordinate efforts throughout the state for legislative reform regarding sexually violent crimes. And in 2008, SART was awarded the Gold Excellence Award from NASPA for programming in the area of Health and Wellness,” according to the Sexual Assault Response Team page on the Counseling Center webpage.

Caldwell said several people have won a commitment to advocacy award, which is given to those involved in sexual violence prevention and programming.

Patterson said a lot of their other programs have been nominated for program of the year.

Where they have come and where they are going

“20 years ago, this was still a problem that I remember having to convince university administrators, ‘No, this really happens, and yes, it happens here, and we need to do something about it,’” Caldwell said.

In 2019, Caldwell said, most campuses have some version of a sexual assault response team.

“I think that where we still need to go is that  we still live in a culture that, whether intentionally or not, condones attitudes that lead to sexual violence,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell said the culture has changed.

Caldwell said, “If we aren’t comfortable about healthy, consensual, fun sex, we really aren’t comfortable talking about violent, non-consensual, traumatizing sex. And that silence is what allows it to flourish. And so the more we talk about it … the less it’s going to be able to happen.”