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MSU's domestic violence program expands through new grant

MSU Safe Place is a program that addresses relationship violence and stalking. It's located on the campus of Michigan State University and serves students, faculty, and staff and their spouses and partners, and non-affiliated members in the Greater Lansing area.

MSU Safe Place provides advocacy, shelter, counseling, support groups, safety planning, information, and referrals to survivors of violence and their minor children. All support services are free and confidential. Additionally, MSU Safe Place works to increase awareness about relationship violence and stalking through community education and outreach efforts.

Annually, the program shelters, approximately 35 to 50 adults and children and provides counseling and advocacy services to many more students, staff, and faculty who experience relationship violence and stalking. Michigan State University Safe Place was recently awarded additional federal funding under the Victims of Crime Act to expand its staff and services for MSU students, employees, community members and their families.

The grant is for just over $250,000 over one year and has allowed Safe Place to hire three new full-time staff - a full-time counselor, an additional advocate, and a full-time volunteer coordinator. Former MSU first lady Joanne McPherson saw a need for this first-of-its-kind university-based domestic violence shelter and support facility in 1994. More than two decades later, Safe Place will have a greater impact on the community through this grant.

Erica Schmittdiel

“We have been providing stalking and domestic violence support on campus since 1994 with between three and four full time staff,” says Erica Schmittdiel, a licensed master social worker and MSU Safe Place advocacy coordinator. “We've been happy to be able to provide that support, but there is a lot of need out there unfortunately. On a campus of this size, we do see a lot of stalking and relationship violence. So having three additional staff will help us to increase our outreach so that more individuals who work or go to school here at MSU are aware of our services. That's been a barrier that we've had with being a smaller staff is providing that outreach. We know that more people are experiencing these types of victimization but may not know where to go or who to reach out to for assistance.”

How do you define stalking?

“Stalking is two or more unwanted incidences that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear or to experience substantial emotional distress. That is subjective, so I would encourage anyone who feels like they are experiencing unwanted contact to reach out to us and then we can talk about the definition of emotional distress. Maybe it doesn't rise to the level of a policy violation, but it's still something that shouldn't be happening and there are options for the person who's on the receiving end of that unwanted contact.

“A of people are surprised to hear that it's two or more unwanted instances and that it's that low of a threshold. Unfortunately, a lot of times people are experiencing stalking and unwanted behavior for weeks or months, but they don't know that it can be considered stalking. They just think that their ex has not been able to let go or that the person they had class with just won't take no for an answer. They don't like the behavior, but maybe they don't understand that it's actually stalking behavior.”

Are stalking and relationship violence the same thing or what's the distinction?

“There is quite a bit of overlap. About half of stalking situations stem from a current or former intimate partner relationship. Several years ago, Safe Place expanded its mission to include stalking as one of the services that we provide. Although that's not always the case, again, about half of stalking situations are where the relationship could be a friend or former friend or an acquaintance. Stranger stalking is rarer, but that can occur as well where somebody's receiving unwanted contact that's anonymous. They don't even know who it is that's contacting them. That certainly can happen although most often it's someone that the person knows.”

Are there traits that are similar in most people who stalk?

“There is definitely a sense of entitlement that it's okay to behave this way. It is intentional. A lot of times either the person on the receiving end of the stalking - the victim or survivor or others - wants to make excuses for the behavior. They may say, ‘Oh, well maybe they don't know that they're stalking you. Or they're just socially awkward.’ And I think that perhaps could be the case for a small percentage of people, but I think most people who engage in stalking behavior know what they're doing. They are wanting to pursue a relationship despite the other person not wanting that relationship.

“They feel entitled. They feel a sense of power and control that they enjoy placing the other person in fear. That is often something that we're talking to people about when they come to our program. You may care about this person. You may have been a friend to them or have been in a relationship with them. That's understandable. But at the same time, they likely know what they're doing. They're doing this intentionally. And there are steps that you can take if they are held responsible by the university or there are consequences for them through the criminal justice system. That is of their own making. Those are choices that they have made to engage in this behavior. Any criminal charges are really on them. And of course, we're not here to tell people who come to us what to do or make decisions for them. We're not insisting that they must make a police report. We're presenting that as an option either now or down the road should they choose to do that. And it’s the same with reporting it to the university.”

“What steps can a person take if they feel they are being stalked?

“We always recommend that people document the stalking. Whether they're ready to make a report here at the university, they can make a report with law enforcement. They can do either or both. But have that documentation. Whether they're ready now to do that or want to do it down the road, they have that information and they're not trying to think back, ‘Well, I think it was a Tuesday in December that they were outside of my apartment building.’ They actually have it written down - when it happened, what time, the location, and how it made them feel. All that information can be very helpful to build a case. Every situation is different so we don't have a cookie cutter approach, but we can talk through the situation with people.

“If they're being stalked via technology, have they checked their social media for their privacy settings? We know that social media is a part of most people's lives so we're not necessarily telling people not to use it because that may not be practical for them. But how can you use social media or technology more safely? Have they changed the passwords on their accounts? It all depends on the individual situation, but we will talk through that with people and try to come up with solutions.”

What can friends and family do to support someone who’s being stalked?

“We always want friends and family to believe the person who comes to them and tells them that they're being stalked. Maybe they're not using those words quite yet, but they're describing a situation that sounds like stalking. Don't minimize it if they're expressing fear for their safety. It may not sound like a big deal if you hear somebody saying, ‘This person is always liking my content on social media, and I've seen them where I'm at a few times and it's creeping me out.’ Don't brush it off as a coincidence. Listen to what the person is telling you. And if they're concerned about this behavior, mirror that concern. Refer them to Safe Place and know they may not contact us right away. Often people don't pick up the phone or send us an email immediately upon being referred to us, but plant that seed. Reassure them that If and when they're ready, there are confidential resources that can talk through options with them. And then if somebody's in immediate fear for their safety, call 9-1-1.

“Prior to the grant, we were serving all the MSU affiliated individuals who had contacted us for services, but we were not able to do that outreach. We were not able to do additional marketing of our services to let people know that we are a resource here on campus. Our volunteer coordinator is currently in contact with all of the registered student organizations to provide that information. The grant will help us to recruit volunteers who will help us expand the services we're able to offer. We know that once individuals are trained in the dynamics of relationship violence and stalking, they become a resource for their family and friends.

“We see a ripple effect with more individuals on our campus being educated about these issues and more people then being able to come forward and receive the help that they may need. Not only do we provide confidential services in that we don't share information with anyone else on campus or out in the community once people come to us, but we have a confidential location as well for safety purposes. People can feel safe here in our location whether they're staying in our shelter or coming for counseling or advocacy appointments and know that the individual who is stalking them or the person who's been abusive to them will not be showing up here during their appointment or during their stay.

“In summary, I would just like to say that we are the relationship violence and stalking program here on campus. We're here to support people at whatever level they need whether it's having one advocacy appointment to get some basic information about what their options are or ongoing advocacy as they are going through the OIE process or the criminal justice system. We are here for whatever level of help people need. Shelter is available, but that's not the only service we provide. We also provide the counseling if people need that.

“We have a fantastic program here to support individuals who may need us. I have been here for 20 years, and I wouldn't still be here at Safe Place if I didn't believe in the work that we do. I encourage individuals to reach out to us and then to spread the word about the services that we provide. We are the only domestic violence shelter on a college campus in the nation that can shelter both individuals and families. There are a number of other colleges and universities that have responded to relationship violence by offering a dorm room for people that may need that, and that's wonderful. However, that doesn't always work for the non-traditional students with children, graduate students, or staff or faculty who may need shelter. I am so proud to work at this unique program and to be able to offer the services that we have.”

“For information about MSU Safe Place, visit safeplace.msu.edu. If you or anyone needs support, contact Safe Place confidentially at noabuse@msu.edu or call 517-355-1100.

MSU Today airs Sunday mornings at 9:00 on WKAR News/Talk and Sunday evenings at 8:00 on 760 WJR. Find, rate, and subscribe to “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.