Stony Brook approaches new SUNY resolution to support LGBT student-athletes

When former Stony Brook University volleyball coach Theresa Tiso arrived on campus for her job interview in 1981, she noticed something different.

“I’m walking across campus to the interview and I see a sign with the fist that says ‘gay pride’,” she said. “I saw it all over and it was just accepted, and that turned the way that I looked at Stony Brook.”

Now, after coaching for 19 years and teaching physical education and physical therapy for 15, Tiso, who currently teaches Sociology of Sport at Stony Brook, is thrilled to see that the State University of New York (SUNY) is joining the movement to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) student-athletes.

On October 25, 2014, the SUNY Faculty Senate passed a resolution, which requests that all SUNY institutions with athletic programs develop programs to support LGBT student-athletes, coaches and staff and prevent anti-LGBT bias and discrimination for the 2015-2016 academic year. According to the resolution, 55 of the 64 SUNY campuses have athletic programs, making up nearly 800 teams with 14,000 student-athletes.

“It’s been an issue for many, many years,” Tiso said.  “We’ve talked about it but usually it was so marginalized as a topic or it was a little tiny bit of the topic in athletics. Everybody knew about it but not everybody embraced it.”

The resolution comes less than a year after former University of Missouri and St. Louis Rams football player Michael Sam revealed his sexuality in February 2014 before the National Football League (NFL) Draft, making him the first publicly gay football player in the NFL and bringing the topic of sexuality in college and professional sports to light.

The resolution

An associate professor of Humanities, Timothy W. Gerken, at Morrisville State College, a SUNY school in upstate New York, produced the original draft of the resolution after learning not about Sam but instead that SUNY New Paltz was the only SUNY school participating in the Athlete Ally program. Gerken is also a member of the The Committee on Diversity and Cultural Competence in the SUNY Faculty Senate (UFS).

As per its website, the Athlete Ally program is a nonprofit organization that “provides public awareness campaigns, educational programming and tools and resources to foster inclusive sports communities.” 51 universities across the country are currently involved with the program.

“As far as I know, there are not any University systems that have adopted these policies,” Gerken said in an email. “However, most university systems have done a good job of ending bias against athletes of color and women. There is no reason why they can not move to address anti-LGBT bias.”

Gerken said that the resolution also presents SUNY with an opportunity to make college sports a more accepting place for LGBT athletes.

“SUNY may be doing a good job making campuses inviting for LGBTQAI students, I am still not sure that athletes and coaches are comfortable coming out to their teams,” he said. “SUNY has a chance to be a leader nationally by reaching out to all student athletes by reassuring them that if they come to a SUNY campus as an out athlete they will be treated the same as the rest of their teammates.”

None of the University Faculty Senators voted against the resolution, Gerken said, but some did abstain from voting. While he was unsure of their reasoning, UFS Senator Frederick Walter, who served as president of the Stony Brook University Faculty Senate for four years, said that abstentions are not always black and white.

“Some people abstain from voting because they don’t understand the issues,” Walter said. “Some because they think it may not go far enough or it may go too far.”

The resolution gives links to different organizations related to LGBT-issues in sports but makes no suggestions to the implementation of specific programs. Walter said that this may actually work in its favor because the resolution does apply to 55 SUNY campuses.

“Of course it’s vague,” Walter said. “There’s no way you’re going to get 60 or 80 senators to agree on something that’s too specific. It can’t be done. Vagueness can be a virtue.”

Stony Brook Athletics’ approach

Stony Brook University, which boasts NCAA Division I status for all 20 of its athletic teams, is among the 55 campuses that is about to embark on developing such programs.

For Women’s Lacrosse player Alyssa Guido, there’s never a feeling of discomfort within her team about the subject.

“My team loves it, they’re very open about it,” Guido said. “We all kid around and joke and they make me feel comfortable and I’ve never had a problem with coaches, players, other teammates, other teams in general.”

While the resolution is new, different members of the Athletics department already work  towards making Stony Brook a safe and accepting environment for its student-athletes and staff.

The conference that Stony Brook participates in, The America East, was the first NCAA conference to officially partner with the initiative. This past summer, several Stony Brook student-athletes created a video to show support for the cause, in which SBU volleyball player Laura Hathaway said, “I’m gay and I’m a Seawolf.”

Current graduate assistant to Athletics administration and former volleyball player Greta Strenger said Stony Brook’s student-athletes have been particularly involved in the You Can Play Project, which works towards “ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation,” according to its mission statement.

“All of our student-athletes have had a really positive experience with [the You Can Play Project],” Strenger said. “They’ve all sort of bought into the message and think it’s an important one to send to our department and the university community and fans as well.”

But the process is ongoing. Strenger and Executive Associate Director of Stony Brook Athletics Donna Woodruff both confirmed that the department will continue to participate in the You Can Play Project but is also working on further including diversity initiatives into its new five year strategic plan.

“Within that there’s a great commitment to diversity and throughout the department, whether it’s our student-athletes [or] staff,” Woodruff said. “So there will be some other things that we’ll make sure certainly stay at the forefront.”

As for LGBT support programs for the next academic year, Woodruff said that she sees the time as more of a reflection period for Athletics rather than a crunch time to meet a quota.

“I don’t think any resolution is saying that you have to develop 15 new things just for the sake of developing them,” she said. “The point is to make sure that athletic departments are aware that this is an important thing and if you’re already doing 15 things, then you’ve already met the resolution.”

The athletics departments at the University at Albany and Binghamton University, two other Division I SUNY institutions, were not able to be reached for comment.

Outside of Athletics

Walter said that during review of the resolution, some senators were curious about why it only targets SUNY athletic departments.

“I think there was some discussion on ‘why are we focusing in on athletics?’,” Walter said. “‘Why don’t we make this campus-wide?’”

John Martin, a graduate assistant in LGBTQ Services, explained that much more goes into making this initiative campus-wide than people realize.

“It takes labor,” Martin said. “You have to educate people. You have to put on trainings. You have to put on programs. That’s all hours of work.”

Martin pointed out that Binghamton University has “not a single professional staff person working in LGBTQ support services.”

The list of resources for LGBTQ students on Binghamton’s website shows links to student-run organizations, which Martin said have faculty advisors but it’s students advising other students. There are also links to several off-campus resources in the Binghamton area.

The description of Binghamton’s Safe Zone program says that “its mission is to create a safe, supportive, and welcoming environment for all LGBTQ people” and that “allies of the Safe Zone have undergone training and are supportive of LGBTQ individuals.” However, the link provided to Safe Zone program leads to a page that says the page cannot be found.

Chris Tanaka is Stony Brook’s Coordinator for LGBTQ Services. The 2014-2015 academic year is the first year that LGBTQ Services is its own stand-alone program. In previous years, LGBTQ Services fell under SBU’s Center for Prevention and Outreach. She is currently the only full time staff member working in LGBTQ Services. As a graduate student, Martin works in LGBTQ Services about 20 hours per week.

“We currently do have some non-discrimination policies in place that apply to the University as a whole so I guess it’s interesting that it’s just sort of targeting LGBTQ athletes,” Tanaka said about the resolution. “I’m all about having more programs that educate about gender and sexuality in general so if that’s just one more place that it’s happening, I’m all for it.”

Tanaka said that Stony Brook’s Safe Spaces program, similar to Binghamton’s Safe Zones, has a two part training with an introduction course and a workshop that are vital for an individual on campus to become an ally of LGBTQ individuals and be considered a “safe space.” Since its inception in 2008, Tanaka said that Stony Brook has trained around 400 individuals.

According to Walter, athletics departments and universities generally have an advantage in taking on projects like this resolution, which is often “not fair” to the general student body.

“Athletes are sort of a ‘pampered minority’,” Walter said. “The D-I athletes have a role to play for the university, they have to compete for the university, carry the university’s logo around the state and the country…It’d be fantastic if all of our students could be treated as well as the athletes are in terms of academic support but they aren’t. Why? Money. It’s no excuse for anything but we take care of them because they’re a small, isolated easily-identifiable subset of people. But for the general population, we don’t have the resources to treat everyone as well.”

Changing the game

Guido said that although her teammates are LGBT student-athletes, often times athletes may feel like they may create awkwardness within the team and therefore may not feel comfortable coming out or being open about their sexuality. “The team chemistry [might not] be there,” she said. “[There could be] inter-relationships, out-of-relationships, things just get uncomfortable for people, things like that.”

For Gerken, the resolution is more than just creating programs to boost awareness, but to also change the mindset on LGBTs in sports.

“We need to end homophobia on the field and in the locker rooms. There needs to be work done to end anti-LGBT language and discriminatory actions,” he said. “Many athletes that use this language may not realize they have LGBT teammates and may not even seem themselves as biased. The education these programs provide would help address these issues.”

Both Gerken and Tiso were coaching college sports (Gerken was a wrestling coach) 30 years ago and said that the outlook on LGBTs in sports has generally evolved for the better since then.

“I felt like a load was lifted off my shoulders when I came here [to Stony Brook],” Tiso said about when she took the coaching job at SBU. “I could see the inclusion, even if it wasn’t perfect, it was there. They’re such a diverse campus and working hard to include people.”

“Our society has changed,” Gerken said. “We need to keep changing. We will be successful when the question is simply “What is the most difficult part of being a student-athlete.”

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How Stony Brook University handles Title IX

By Rebecca Anzel, Giselle Barkley and Hanaa’ Tameez

Amidst an ongoing federal investigation into Stony Brook University’s handling of Title IX cases, many students are unfamiliar with the law and the method by which SBU investigates sexual harassment/violence claims that occur on its campus.

“Title IX—it sounds familiar but I can’t say what it is,” Mark Szklonicki, a junior health science major, said.

Other students, like junior biology major Ava Cazabonnet, junior psychology major Trini Joseph and senior mechanical engineering major Yash Vardhan Sharma, did not know what Title IX was, nor had they heard about the law or the investigation process before.

Due to what seems like a general lack of information and understanding in terms of Title IX and reporting sexual assault and harassment at Stony Brook, The Statesman compiled its findings in relation to the matter.

As part of the 1972 Education Act, Title IX is a federal clause prohibiting discrimination based on gender at any federally-funded educational institution, including about “16,000 local school districts, 3,200 colleges and universities, and 5,000 for-profit schools as well as libraries and museums,” according to the United States Department of Education website.

Stony Brook is a member of the State University of New York system and receives monetary support from both the state and federal government. Therefore, the institution must follow the rules outlined by Title IX.

The United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened an investigation into Stony Brook on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Because the investigation is open and still ongoing, neither the University nor the OCR can comment on its progress or findings.

Reporting

Each year, university police departments are required to release an annual Clery Report. The report details all crimes that occurred on campuses and includes sexual assault-related crimes.

The 2014 Clery Report, which Stony Brook’s UPD released at the ending of September, states that on-campus rapes were reported six time in 2013. In addition, rapes that occurred in residential facilities  were reported five times last year. These reports have gradually increased over the last three years according to the Clery Report.

However, it is unknown whether reports have increased due to more rape or sexual assault related incidences at Stony Brook or because more victims are reporting these cases.

Despite the Clery Report and Stony Brook’s efforts towards educating students about Title IX, some students said universities are often hypocritical when they fail to disclose its own mistakes.

“The authority contradicts themselves and covers up what actually happens like incidences where Title IX is violated and [it’s] just for the sake of reputation,” Veronica Bognot, a junior philosophy and comparative literature major, said.

A university’s transparency regarding Title IX violations or sexual assault-related reports not only indicate its safety but also provides insight on how these incidences are handled.

“Telling the truth about high numbers makes a school safer, in my opinion, because it means they’re less likely to hide the truth, which is always a safer policy.  Schools with low numbers are dangerous because it means they are either discouraging victims from reporting and/or handling the cases under the radar,” Murphy said. “Both approaches put women at greater risk and send the message that violence against women is acceptable because the school will not take effective steps against offenders and or openly address and shame the behavior.”

The Process

Within the last year, SBU published on its University Community Standards website an interactive chart detailing to the process by which it handles all sexual harassment and abuse allegations. The process is broad and all-encompassing; it is not specific to sexual harassment and assault.

According to the chart, those making a complaint have 30 days to do so and can choose to go to the University Police Department, Office of Community Standards or the Title IX Director. From there, a University employee from the Division of Student Affairs office conducts an investigation into “whether further action is necessary.” This includes getting accounts of the situation from the alleged victim and assailant and any witnesses.

There are two possible outcomes at this point. In some cases, a written notice will be sent to the accused student notifying him or her of the specific charges and a hearing will be scheduled no sooner than ten days after that notice is sent. It is unclear if the written notice is sent out by post or by email.

The accused can “take responsibility” and waive the right to a hearing and accept the sanctions, according to the chart. If the student chooses to contest the allegations, he or she can appeal to start a hearing process. The type of hearing varies based on the severity of the accusation.

The second route is to hold a Disciplinary Counseling meeting, which will be scheduled between the student involved and a university official. It is unclear if the student called into the counseling meeting is the accuser or the accused.

The information presented in the chart seems to hold that any incident will always be between students but does not mention any changes in the process if one of the involved parties is, for example, a staff or faculty member.

Despite this lengthy process, many Stony Brook students are not aware of the initial steps of reporting a Title IX-related incident.

“I know that there is a hearing but, I didn’t know that it went through people who were running the Title IX stuff,”  senior psychology major Adil Ahmed said.

Many students, like Ahmed, said they would go to the University Police Department to report a Title IX-related incident. Although UPD conducts an investigation into a Title IX-related case after it is reported, they pass the information to the university’s Title IX office for further investigation.

Wendy Murphy, an adjunct professor of sexual violence law at New England School of Law who spoke at a Title IX panel at Stony Brook last April, said in an e-mail she does not know of any university that “complies fully with Title IX.”

Misconceptions

There are a number of misconceptions surrounding Title IX—chief among them is the idea the clause only pertains to athletic programs at federally-funded higher education institutions.

Three others, as defined by an ESPN article, are that schools to must cut a number of male teams; Title IX ensures opportunities for female and male players are equal; and the monetary resources devoted to male and female teams must be equal.

According to the article, “schools must decide where to spend their money. And often, when they decide to cut non-revenue men’s sports—such as wrestling, swimming and tennis—it’s not so they can fund women’s sports, but rather so they can pump more money into football.”

In terms of equal amounts of spending on men’s and women’s athletic teams, there is nothing in Title IX that explicitly states schools need to spend the same amount of money on their women’s and men’s sports teams. Instead, its language specifies the difference in spending cannot be as a result of any discriminatory acts. Most all higher education institutions spend more money on men’s sports programs than on women’s.

“Sports are important, but they’re not more important than safety and equality in access to academics and education,” Murphy said.  “Put another way, raped women don’t need more basketballs.”

Educational programs

Stony Brook’s Director of Title IX and Risk Management Marjolie Leonard said the campus community is also often unaware as to how sexual assault is classified and handled. She jointly oversees the SBU Office of Diversity and Affirmative Action.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination,” Leonard said during an impromptu interview with different Stony Brook media organizations on Wednesday, Oct.1, 2014. “In the Office of Diversity and Affirmative Action, we address all forms of discrimination so it makes sense that it would be run together.”

Leonard has not been available for an interview since Oct. 1.

Leonard also said she and her department use a relatively new online training “Know Your Rights” program to better educate students. “One of the things that is really important that we have been doing and continue to do with this online training is equipping our students and employees with information and knowledge because a lot of people don’t know what their rights are and responsibilities are,” Leonard said. “They might not know what options we have available to them if they should be the victim of some type of sexual harassment or sexual violence, knowing what resources are available to them.”

The deadline to complete the mandatory training was Friday, Oct. 24, 2014. A hold is placed on the SOLAR accounts of students who do not complete it.

According to Murphy, training is not what will solve these problems on college campuses.

“Schools don’t need training and ‘advisors,’,” she said via e-mail. “They need transparency, accountability and effective oversight by state and federal agencies and state and federal courts.”

“Schools don’t need “training programs” about consent, and silly experts who “teach” officials how to apply boondoggle policies,” she continued. “They need simple, short and easy to use and understand policies that make it VERY clear that sexist violence is the SAME type of harm as racist violence, and ethnic violence, etc. THIS message, alone, will change things overnight – and the training necessary to make this point clear should be a program where ALL protected class issues are addressed at the same time.”

Students who took the “Know Your Rights: Discrimination and Violence Required Training”—like Ahmed and Szklonicki—had mixed reactions about the survey.

“I thought…that it was kind of a waste to be honest,” Ahmed said. “You ran through 10 slides and at the end they gave you questions.” Ahmed said despite the fact that the slides provided students with information, he “could only imagine that most people didn’t really re-read them.” However, he mentioned the questions in the survey were “good.”

While the survey touched upon some students’ previous knowledge about sexual assault, it also provided new pieces of information.

“I can’t say I learned anything I hadn’t known before. But it cleared up a few things,” Szklonicki said. Prior to the survey, Szklonicki did not know a woman could rape a man. “It’s not something that you would think could happen.”

This article was originally published in the Dec. 8, 2014 issue of The Statesman.

Day of Anger Millions March rakes in 25,000 participants in New York City

The Millions March in New York City on Saturday, Dec.13, 2014, gathered several thousand people from across the country in solidarity with the recent events in Ferguson, MO.  The march started in Washington Square Park and ended in front of One Police Plaza. Several protesters came out to voice their concerns with the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, both of whom suffered fatal injuries due to police brutality.

On reporting death: I am a Seawolf, too

When you get a call saying that a fellow student may have committed suicide on campus, your heart drops.

It is an awful thing to hear. Your mind runs at a million miles a minute with all sorts of thoughts, but you keep asking yourself, “why?”

For Kelly, Arielle and I as news editors, it is no different. But then we run.

I was at the scene when University Police Department and Suffolk County Police Department officers were conducting the initial investigation at Roosevelt Quad on Tuesday, Dec. 2. The three of us took this very seriously, which is why we did not bother trying to find out who on our staff was closest in proximity. We went ourselves.

I saw students around us with tears rolling down their faces. I had to swallow the knots in my throat and bite the insides of my cheeks to keep my own tears from falling.

As the campus newspaper of record, The Statesman is obligated to disperse information to the campus community that affects the campus community. When I initially found out that a student may have possibly taken his own life at Stimson College, I felt what you all felt. But as a reporter, I have a responsibility to you, the readers, to find out what happened. This is not to say that I suffer more than you do; that is not true at all. But my experience is different, and it is one that is hard for most people to understand.

Kelly, Arielle and I know full well that in a situation like this, the last thing a person wants to do is speak to a reporter. If you witness something like that, we know how terrifying and downright annoying it can be when a reporter asks you what you saw—you do not know if you know what you saw, much less how to talk about it for publication.

It is scary for us too. We know you are distraught and we never know how you are going to react to us. But we have to go for it because we are the only people who can humanize the story. When we ask you what you know about someone, we are not trying to fill space in our paper. We want them to be remembered as who they were and what they meant to you, not by how they left us.

Our angle is not that a person died on campus. It is that our community lost a Seawolf.

When publications like Newsday and The New York Daily News pick up a story like this, more likely than not, it was a slow news night for them.

At The Statesman, that is certainly not the case. We know how deeply an event like this resonates with the campus community. We know that you are counting on us for information because we are here.  We are not in Melville, N.Y. and we are not in New York City. We are at Stony Brook.

We recognize that verification is crucial to journalism, particularly in sensitive matters. We know other news organizations have published stories that included speculation on details about the manner of the student’s death—details that we know were not confirmed on the record by UPD or SCPD. We know those details were not confirmed because we asked the authorities. Several times.

This is one of the many reasons I value my working relationships with groups like UPD and SCPD. They understand better than most people how vital accuracy is and how detrimental a factual error can be. This is why Kelly, Arielle and I waited until we received official, on-the-record comments from them. We have been working with them for years and we trust them to do their job just as they, and hopefully you, trust us to do ours.

If we—Kelly, Arielle and I­—were slow to get the information about this out to you, we sincerely apologize. We never want to keep you waiting. But know in a case as sensitive as this one, we decided that accuracy trumped timeliness and it was better to say nothing than to say the wrong thing.

We decided it was better to publish what you already knew from the campus-wide emails than to re-publish speculation from other organizations. We wanted to make sure every word of every sentence that we put out was 1,000 percent factually and grammatically accurate.

Our job is to sift through, clarify and package this information so you do not have to. We in no way want to do any more damage than has already been done.

If you have any questions or concerns about the story we published, feel free to email us at news@sbstatesman.com.

We are incredibly sorry for the loss of a fellow Seawolf. Our thoughts are with his family and friends in this trying time.

This article was originally published in the Dec. 8, 2014 issue of The Statesman.