Penn is working to expand its resources to support victims of sexual violence.
Counseling and Psychological Services is implementing a new program — called Sexual Trauma Treatment, Outreach and Prevention, or STTOP — that is designed to address the unique needs of victims of sexual violence. The program involves a team of four CAPS counselors who have undergone additional training to treat victims.
Beginning last semester, the group counselors began research into treatment of sexual violence victims and attended a conference on treatment methods over the summer — efforts that “keep the clinician up to date on best practices, and you see what other colleges are doing,” CAPS Director Bill Alexander said. “It keeps us sharp.”
Though all CAPS counselors are qualified to treat sexual assault victims, “we think it will be better for the students … to get someone who has more expertise,” Alexander said.
He noted that increased sensitivity is required compared to other reasons that students come to CAPS — particularly, care must be taken not to re-victimize people seeking help. To that end, Alexander said, CAPS is planning a method to bypass the typical triage system and connect students directly with a STTOP team member.
“You don’t want to have to re-tell that story over and over again because it’s so re-victimizing,” he said. The treatment goal of the program is to create a comfortable place for victims.
“The priority of the clinician is to deal with the student’s emotional and psychological trauma — to make them safe,” Alexander added. “The first priority is to create a safe space. It’s the old adage, ‘Do no harm.’”
The program, which was piloted last semester and is undergoing its full launch this semester, grew out of the sexual assault support group run in conjunction by CAPS and the Penn Women’s Center — which is poised to be a steady source of referrals to the STTOP team.
“I think they complement each other well,” Jessica Mertz, associate director of the Women’s Center, said. “A lot of the referrals we get to the [support] group are people who are already going to CAPS — it goes both ways.”
Because the program is brand new, it is not yet clear how much the STTOP team will be utilized — but Alexander said there was a strong response during its unannounced pilot run in the spring.
While the program started out as just treatment for victims, the CAPS staff has ambitious goals about the impact STTOP can make on the culture surrounding sexual violence.
“We think there is a need out there which is unmeasured and unmet,” Alexander said. “So just to start that conversation is a way to create awareness.” But to truly change the culture, he said, “at the end of the day, I guess the community will have to own it.”
In addition to the support group — which still has space available for this semester — other resources for victims of sexual violence include the Division of Public Safety’s Department of Special Services, Student Intervention Services and Student Health Service, all of which will be sources of referrals to the STTOP team.