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Paul Smith’s College team working to better support victims of sexual assault

Erin Cass, left, stands next to Nicola Smith in Smith’s office at Paul Smith’s College Wednesday. The two women are working to get funding for sexual assault nurse examiners to support victims of sexual violence on campus and beyond. (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

PAUL SMITHS — For victims of sexual assault, there is an extraordinary list of obstacles to overcome, starting with the immediate response to the assault. The after-effects of assault can be lifelong, and what happens in the first hours and days can determine what happens long afterward.

The Campus Advocacy Response Education team at Paul Smith’s College, started two years ago at the school, is working to address and solve crucial aspects of how the campus and the surrounding community responds to sexual violence, starting with how rape kits are administered.

Even though hospitals and medical facilities have rape kits — the evidence kits that medical personnel use to collect evidence after a sexual assault — a great deal depends on how they’re administered, who administers them, where they go to be processed and how long it takes to process them. Improper administering of the kits can jeopardize any eventual prosecution of a crime. Many police departments and laboratories have backlogs of those kits, which can delay trials and prevent identification of repeat offenders. The effect on the victims can be enormous and far-reaching.

Paul Smith’s CARE team is working to get funding to train four nurses to become Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, or SANE-A certified, at Adirondack Health. Adirondack Health runs Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, the nearest hospital to the college, and though the hospital has SANE-trained nurses, it does not have any who are currently certified.

Matthew Scollin, director of communication at Adirondack Health, confirmed that Paul Smith’s College has been in contact with them about their intent to pursue grant funding for SANE training and said the hospital welcomes the collaboration.

“Adirondack Health is fully on board with any regional effort to pursue funding for SANE training and increase, in any way possible, the resources available to survivors of rape and sexual assault,” said Scollin.

Paul Smith’s CARE project was funded as part of a federal grant from the Office on Violence Against Women, which was founded in 1995 by first lady Hillary Clinton following the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and is part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The coordinator of CARE is Nicola Smith, who came to Paul Smith’s in August after getting a masters degree in sociology and global change from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Before that she was a domestic violence victim advocate for the nonprofit Safe Horizon and a rape crisis advocate for the Crime Victim Treatment Center in New York City. Besides being on call to provide assistance and support to survivors of sexual assault in hospitals, she trained the New York Police Department on how to respond to those victims.

“It’s a problem everywhere,” said Smith of sexual assault. “I think it’s more of a pandemic than the pandemic is.”

Sexual assault has long been a problem on college campuses — the Office on Violence Against Women was created in part to address issues on college campuses — and Paul Smith’s has added challenges, being in a rural area where most of the students don’t have cars or easy access to medical care. The student population of the college is also around 70% male.

Currently, victims of sexual assault must travel to Malone, Plattsburgh, Albany or Burlington, Vermont, to receive the type of care administered by SANE-trained nurses. This is problematic for the survivors of assault themselves but also for the evidence gathered in the rape kits.

“Thinking about this locally is very important,” said Erin Cass, a lecturer and library technician at Paul Smith’s who is on the CARE team. “So many assaults go unreported.”

Both women brought up a recent Saranac Lake police survey, conducted as part of the police reforms mandated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that spurred the formation of a Saranac Lake police reform committee. The survey asked village respondents to rank the severity of sexual assault and rape as an issue for the community. Eighty-two out of 224 respondents rated it as “very serious.”

On Monday, Smith brought the issue to the Saranac Lake Village Board of Trustees at its bimonthly meeting. Board members asked for more data on how many local people face sexual assault before any funding would be considered.

“I wonder why a town wouldn’t think providing minimum care for survivors is not an essential thing that needs to be addressed,” said Smith.

“People in this community want solutions for sexual assault,” said Cass.

“There are so many barriers already, and so much responsibility put on the woman,” said Smith. “It shouldn’t be a privilege to get a rape kit.”

For more information about the Paul Smith’s College CARE program, go to www.paulsmiths.edu/care. The 24-hour sexual assault services hotline is 877-212-2323. The 24-hour domestic violence hotline is 888-563-6904. The 24-hour stop domestic violence hotline in Plattsburgh is 518-563-6904. The New York State police non-emergency 24-hour hotline is 844-845-7269. The Paul Smith’s campus counseling center is 518-327-6237.

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