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Anyone who has spent time on a college campus recently knows they are much different now than even 10 years ago. Social media has changed everything. Students put their entire lives online. At Belmont, I have the privilege of working with our college athletes. Like all students, they face enormous social pressure to showcase “risky behaviors” through social media. However, if they choose to participate and post such things – especially given their athlete status – they are making decisions with ramifications that could impact the rest of their lives.

Two things recently led us to take up the issue of sexual violence with our student athletes. The first was the highly-publicized recent events at another local university. The second was recent changes in Title IX. We are now required to report any suspicion of harassment or abuse. While this is wonderful in theory, administrators have had many discussions on whether this allows students to feel safe or shuts people down, knowing anything they insinuate must be reported and they may face social backlash.

Around the same time this was implemented, Hope Clinic’s therapist, Terry Cheatham, spoke at my church, and I was introduced to the clinic and their prevention program. Soon after, we welcomed Terry and the clinic’s CEO Renée Rizzo to speak to our athletes. We could not have asked for two more perfect people to lead these trainings. Terry is extremely passionate and educated, and Renée instantly connected with the females given her history as a student athlete.

They divided the students into two groups. With the females, it was important for us to help give them a voice, teach them to protect themselves, and emphasize that if they are a victim, it is not their fault and they should not be ashamed. The females said they were shocked by the statistics Renée shared. It was especially powerful when she split them into groups. One in four women will be assaulted on a college campus, and it hit home that it could be any one of the people in their group – a friend or even themselves.

For the males, they took a different approach by dealing with the over-sexualization of young men and women, learning to be positive bystanders, making healthy choices with alcohol and pornography, and addressing rape culture. We’ve hosted similar seminars with other organizations, but the males said Terry was able to keep their attention and they felt comfortable talking about these sensitive subjects.

Afterwards, Renée and Terry gave feedback and suggestions for practical improvements directly from the students – places on campus in need of additional lighting, information on the location of campus security cameras, protecting students in parking lots, and more. We’re grateful students had a venue to ask for things they need to feel safe on campus – which is, of course, a top priority for the university.

Since our session, we know students have sought counseling individually. While we offer counseling on campus, not everyone feels comfortable walking through those doors, so we’re glad this provided an alternative for someone to get the help they need in a place where they feel safe and anonymous.

In this day and age, our students constantly face ethical and moral decisions. Unfortunately, risky behaviors have simply become the social norm. We’re grateful to partner with an organization that gives our students the tools and confidence to make healthy, responsible choices in a culture that continually asks them to do the opposite.

– Heather Copeland, Assistant Athletic Director for Compliance, Belmont University