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The Dartmouth
April 16, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Sexual Violence Prevention Project understaffing threatens College’s anti-sexual misconduct initiative

Due to understaffing, the Class of 2023 may go without SVPP coursework for the entire 2021-22 academic year.

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The Sexual Violence Prevention Project — the College’s four-year sexual violence prevention curriculum — is currently contemplating canceling all of this academic year’s curriculum for the Class of 2023. SVPP officials expect to make a decision “over the next couple of weeks,” director Amanda Childress said.

For the past six years, the SVPP has had four permanent staff members responsible for creating a comprehensive four-year sexual violence prevention program for the undergraduate student body, according to Childress. She estimated that SVPP would need anywhere between 12 to 14 full-time staff members — at least three times the current staff — to carry out the program for all class years. 

“Just next term, we’ll probably have to facilitate 120 in-person workshops for about 4,000 students,” Childress said. 

The impending decision results from the pandemic-related restructuring of SVPP courses  that put further strain on the already understaffed project, according to Student Wellness Center director Caitlin Barthelmes. Prior to the pandemic, the SVPP staff were able to develop programming for each rising class a year ahead of time. 

“Our process all along has been to be really thoughtful and intentional about creating [programs] and piloting them before fully integrating them and expanding them to an entire class,” Barthelmes said. “[COVID-19] had us reevaluate what we’re able to do in the foreseeable future; I think we’re going to keep doing our best.”

As COVID-19 swept across the country, Childress’ team had to make a decision: either reformat the entire first-year and incomplete sophomore course material to a virtual setting — providing the Classes of 2023 and 2024 with some online curriculum — or dedicate their limited staff and resources to begin work on junior course material. They chose the first option, she said. 

But by delegating resources to adapting the first-year and sophomore curricula to an online format, the SVPP gave up its one-year lead on developing a junior program. According to Childress, the SVPP lacked the infrastructure to do both simultaneously. 

“We’re behind in big part because of that,” she explained. “We do not have the capacity … to continue developing out. We’re working on that right now, and trying to get more staffing to do that, but our team is currently responsible for developing the curriculum, piloting the curriculum, implementing and facilitating it [and] evaluating it. It’s a lot.”

As a result, although the SVPP is in its third year of student training, only the first-year curriculum is complete. Two of the five sophomore courses have yet to be finished, and work has not begun on the SVPP courses for juniors. 

The potential training cuts come six years after the creation of the Moving Dartmouth Forward initiative. The campaign — which College President Phil Hanlon formally announced in January 2015 — strives to end harmful behavior related to high-risk drinking, sexual assault and inclusivity, according to the initiative’s website. The completion of the SVPP is the only item in the “sexual violence prevention and response” section of the College’s MDF implementation chart still listed as “ongoing,” as of 2020. 

Training has previously been mandatory for all class years, but current staffing shortages and incomplete curricula threaten to put this requirement on hold, SVPP student advisory board member David Millman ’23 said.

“It just means that all of that [work] falls on the same four people,” Millman said. “And these are really good people, and they care about the work that they’re doing, but it just seems that the College should support [the SVPP] more than it is.”

Before the pandemic, Childress said there had been discussions between her team and senior administrative officials to add more staff members to the project. According to Childress, the transition to virtual learning, however, delayed hiring.

In an Oct. 29 meeting between SVPP staff, Hanlon, interim Dean of the College Scott Brown and interim Provost David Kotz ’86, the SVPP provided College administrators with a comprehensive update on its progress for the first time since the onset of the pandemic. The SVPP also put forth the idea of hiring eight to 10 additional staff members.

“In terms of the reaction … we felt very good about how we were having that conversation with them and their reception to the work that’s been done,” Barthelmes said, who was present at the meeting. “We’re excited to see how things move forward.”

The exact hiring timeline, though, remains unclear, according to Brown.

“In a pure sense, it could take a while,” Brown said, who called the project update meeting both “compelling” and “helpful.” 

Yet Brown characterized both the SVPP and the broader Moving Dartmouth Forward initiative as programs that operate without sweeping guarantees from the College administration. 

“In general, in any presidential initiative, there is not a particular promise of a particular level of resources (or guaranteed unlimited support) and are supported and modified as available through our budget process,” Brown wrote in a follow-up email statement.

The merits of expanding the program are clear and have a potentially large-scale impact, Millman said.

“When you’re preventing sexual violence, the impact that has on someone is immense,” he said.  “When you invest in these resources, you are investing in the community’s mental health, as well.”