The U.S. Department of Justice has awarded Gannon University a three-year, $298,638 grant to fund the expansion of its violence and sexual violence prevention programs.
Gannon got the nod as a grant recipient during the fall semester, according to Ward McCracken, former dean of Student Development and current dean of the Student Success Center.
“It’s one of those moments where we had an opportunity,” McCracken said. “We asked ourselves, ‘Would this be a good thing for us to apply for?’ We can look at what we do, how we do it, and how to make everything better.”
McCracken said that the grant committee had to quickly meet a deadline for the university’s application, but the hard work eventually paid off.
“We were very happy when the funding did come, and the first thing we did then was start a search for a coordinator, and then the coordinator has the grant as a blueprint,” he said.
The newly hired violence prevention coordinator is Katie Allison, whose position allows her to preside over several violence prevention committees.
The first group includes representatives from local Erie organizations, such as SafeNet, Crime Victims and the district attorney’s office. Another committee is composed of administrators across campus from student counseling, police and safety, student living and so on.
These two committees meet to discuss new ideas for violence prevention programs, submit a proposal to the overall grant committee and then run the ideas past the 15-member student committee.
Allison said she views the student committee as the integral part of communicating the grant committee goals to Gannon students. “The student team is probably one of the biggest pieces,” Allison said. “They’re the voices of the students and they’ll go tell us where the gaps are.
“As adults we can put programs together, but they’re going to say, ‘You know what, that’s not going to work, nobody’s going to listen because it’s the same old, same old.’ So what is it that will communicate with the students in their language?”
McCracken said that even though Gannon already has sound violence prevention and reporting policies in place, sometimes the biggest disparity comes in communicating the ins and outs of those to students.
“We think that we have some really good policies, but the problem is, do students know about them?” McCracken said. “Are they communicated well to students, and are they as effective as we think they are? So we need that student input to review what we do, to make it better, and make sure it’s communicated in a way that students know where it’s at.”
Though the grant is intended to enhance the security and awareness of violence and sexual violence on campus, Gannon did not receive the grant because of any high number of incidents or dire need to improve university safety, according to Allison.
“This grant was looking at giving universities a chance to be preventive and be proactive instead of using the money to put out fires,” Allison said. “We fell in the category that we didn’t have a high number, and we can make things even better.
“That speaks to Gannon, and speaks to what’s already in place. It isn’t because we have this high rate of crime, but it’s more about the idea that we are doing things well and we can use the money to be better at what we’re doing.”
Sophomore physician assistant major Christina Findlay said she thought Gannon already does a lot of things right when it comes to safety.
“I like knowing GUEST is around; it’s really comforting,” Findlay said. “Walking around during the daytime is just fine but at night it’s nice to know that they’re there.”
With the grant in hand, McCracken said that the improvements over the three-year period will serve as a model to the U.S. Department of Justice to display to other universities.
“Katie can show them what we’re doing and they can use that as research for best practice material to show to other schools who may not get the grant,” McCracken said. “But if they’re starting something at their schools, they have a best practice to look at.”
McCracken said that more opportunities for training will be available to faculty, staff and even students in order to help Gannon become better equipped to handle violence. Students will even have access to “bystander training,” which will be introduced to incoming freshman as early as Preview GU and possibly Summer Orientation.
“Hopefully people will be more proactive, they’ll have a better sense of what to do and that they should do it, and that they can help in any situation they would encounter, whether it be harassment, violence or sexual assault,” McCracken said.
Julia Girouard, also a sophomore physician assistant major, said her only safety concerns are at areas considered to be “off campus.”
“But when you come onto campus it’s not bad at all,” she said.
Allison added that expanding the university’s violence prevention program is also equally concerned with getting members of the community to behave and think on the same page.
“I think what we’re really trying to do is to create an environment that promotes respect, equality, civility and healthy relationships,” Allison said. “It’s shifting the whole thought process and culture away from looking at it all so negatively and instead toward the positive.”
McCracken said that the grant doesn’t have a majority focus on helping victims of violence and sexual violence, but that’s because Gannon’s record is already so solid in that regard.
“That’s where we’re kind of strong already,” McCracken said. “Students who come forward that we know about are already coming into our counseling center and getting help.”
Allison said this grant can only make Gannon a safer campus, even if her work just helps students to be more fully aware of ways to avoid violence and be familiar with Gannon’s protective services.
“We have a lot of good resources on campus, but part of that is just making it more visible,” Allison said.