BEMIDJI -- Starting this semester, Bemidji State and Northwest Technical College have an on-campus advocate from Support Within Reach to provide students with resources regarding sexual violence.

“(The campus presence) helps to close the gap of accessibility because some students don’t necessarily know where our office is or don’t have their own transportation,” Advocate Kortney Carlin said. “It gives them a place that is central and easy to access.”

Carlin holds an office in BSU's Lower Hobson Memorial Union from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays and is at NTC in room 311, from 8 a.m. to noon on Fridays.

Also available by appointment, Carlin mentioned that having an on-campus presence is one way they are letting students know about their resources that are free and confidential.

“I used to go to BSU and I didn’t really know what Support Within Reach was, so that’s definitely something we’re trying to change,” Carlin said.

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Although Support Within Reach has co-hosted campus events in the past, namely the annual Take Back the Night event for sexual violence survivors, SWR now communicates more closely with students through class presentations and tabling at events.

“I’ve been tabling at homecoming just raising awareness for safe drinking, what consent is and doing presentations to classes letting them know there are resources for them,” Carlin said.

During her first week on the job after becoming an advocate in February 2020, Carlin sat down with BSU staff to discuss plans to add an on-campus office. These plans were soon derailed when COVID hit in March 2020.

“Literally the week they shut the campus down was supposed to be my first week on campus,” Carlin recalled. “So it paused until this semester.”

This past summer, Campus Diversity Officer Steven Parker and Health Education Coordinator Jay Passa reconnected with Carlin for another attempt to set up the offices since most students would be returning to both campuses.

Carlin credited Parker and Passa as her “go-to people” for facilitating and choosing the office locations.

Support Within Reach also offers volunteer opportunities within the organization’s service area. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Support Within Reach also offers volunteer opportunities within the organization’s service area. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Changing the culture

With these offices set up, Support Within Reach hopes to change the culture around victim-blaming and stigma surrounding sexual assault reporting.

“It’s important that individuals who do have a traumatic experience due to sexual assault and violence know that it’s OK to come forward,” SWR County Supervisor Elizabeth Brown said. “We do not condone, nor do we advocate for victim-blaming. It’s something we fight against relentlessly.”

According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network, 26.4% of undergraduate females and 6.8% of undergraduate males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation.

College women ages 18-24 are at three times higher risk of sexual violence compared to all women, and they’re also twice as likely to be victims of sexual assault than robbery.

Male college students 18-24 are 78% more likely than non-students of the same age to be a victim of rape of assault, while female college students 18-24 are 20% less likely to be victims.

With these statistics in mind, Carlin hopes that students can seek help and talk about their experiences. “(Students) don’t need to do the legal process if they don’t want, but it’s OK to seek help and to talk about it,” Carlin said.

Prior to Wednesday, Sept. 15, Minnesota statute 609.341 subdivision seven defined “mentally incapacitated” as, “under the influence of alcohol, a narcotic, anesthetic, or any other substance, administered to that person without the person's agreement, and lacks the judgment to give a reasoned consent to sexual contact or sexual penetration.”

This definition didn’t take into account assault victims who voluntarily ingested alcohol or other substances, leaving less of a legal ground to stand on regarding prosecution.

However, the term recently changed on Sept. 15 to include these voluntarily intoxicated victims. SWR posted on Facebook that “anyone who cannot consent, understand or control themselves because of being under the influence is deemed 'mentally incapacitated' whether they drank willingly or not.”

For college campuses, Carlin thinks this is a positive change especially for students who find themselves in compromising situations.

"Just because someone is drinking doesn’t mean they consent to being sexually assaulted," she added.

Bemidji State student Nash Tietz visits the Support Within Reach table on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, at BSU’s Hobson Memorial Union. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Bemidji State student Nash Tietz visits the Support Within Reach table on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, at BSU’s Hobson Memorial Union. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Plans moving forward

Support Within Reach is in the planning stages of Take Back the Night 2022 expected to take place Thursday, April 21, at BSU’s Hobson Memorial Union fire pit.

With April being Sexual Assault Awareness Month nationally and in Bemidji, Carlin encourages more people and agencies to get involved with planning an event based on a shared vision of supporting sexual violence survivors.

In the meantime, Carlin and other advocates are tabling at Bemidji State this week and giving presentations to FYRE students, those in the first-year residential experience program.

There will also be a Sexual Assault Awareness Panel sponsored by SWR and the Student Center for Health and Counseling at 6 p.m. on Nov. 9 in Hagg-Sauer Hall 150.

The panel will include Parker, Jesse Becker from the Bemidji Police Department, Executive Director at SWR Evett Ellis and Shannon Shaw, coordinator for the Family Advocacy Center of Northern Minnesota.

“It’s going to be about questions (regarding sexual assault) and just getting the whole community involved,” Carlin said.

More information about Support Within Reach can be found on their website, www.supportwithinreach.org, and Facebook page.