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Courage and awareness Class hosts panel on sexual harassment

Former UTB/TSC President Juliet V. García gestures during the panel discussion on sexual harassment, held last Thursday on the Brownsville campus. Also shown are panel moderator and Communication Chair John Cook, Student Rights and Responsibilities Associate Dean Douglas Stoves, psychology Lecturer Camilla Montoya and counseling Professor James Whittenberg. Cook’s gender and communication class hosted the discussion. Robert Benavidez Jr./The Rider

Sexual harassment and courage were among the topics addressed at a panel discussion, which was held last Thursday in Main Building 2.502 on the Brownsville campus.

More than 70 campus community members attended the event.

The panelists were Juliet V. García, a communication professor and former president of UT Brownsville and Texas Southmost College; Douglas Stoves, associate dean for Student Rights and Responsibilities; James Whittenberg, an assistant professor of counseling; and Camilla Montoya, a psychological science lecturer.

Communication Department Chair John Cook served as the event’s moderator.

“Every time I have a gender class, we have a difficult dialogue with some topic associated with gender,” Cook said. “We decided that we would do ours on sexual harassment this time.”

The panel opened with Montoya explaining why she thinks sexual harassment has become such a huge issue this year.

“Honestly, I think it came from the presidential debates and the presidential race and all that,” she said. “The topic kind of emerged and became something that started being talked about and from that, people started voicing the things that they had experienced or seen.”

Asked what the primary cause of sexual harassment is and its impact, García replied, saying the culture of an organization can be a factor.

“They’re there, and they’re deep and the older the organization, often, the more conditional the culture, the harder to break loose of old ways of doing, the traditional ways,” she said. “I think every organization is vulnerable.”

García also said power and authority are used by perpetrators to sexually harass vulnerable individuals, mentioning the case of former USA Gymnastics team’s doctor, Larry Nassar, sexually assaulting young girls and how Nassar would give them gifts.

Whittenberg chimed in and warned against crossing lines with gifts and keeping relationships professional.

Since October 2017, major events, such as women speaking out about movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment of women, Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman speaking out about Nassar’s sexual abuse, actor Anthony Rapp accusing Kevin Spacey of sexual harassment and actress Alyssa Milano’s use of the trending hashtag #MeToo on Twitter, have inspired people to speak out about their own experience with sexual harassment.

The Office of Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention has seen a steady increase in reporting since UTRGV’s inception, but Program Coordinator Priscilla Palacios said the increase is not necessarily tied to what is going on in Hollywood, but due to increased awareness in the campus community.

“More people getting the courage to speak out, knowing that there are resources for them in the community or here on our campus, more students, staff or faculty wanting to figure out or understand what is going on. … They’re now getting the empowerment to speak out and let others know what happened to them or what they went through,” Palacios said in a Wednesday interview with The Rider.

As panelists continued to answer questions, Whittenberg mentioned that he was from Tennessee, to which Cook replied, “#MeToo.”

The hashtag has been used by people on Twitter to indicate they’ve experienced sexual harassment or assault. Attendees laughed at the statement, but accounting senior Vicente Martinez took offense to it and spoke out.

“I’m not sure why you joked about such a serious issue because many women come forward saying #MeToo because they’ve been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted and you, you said to joke about it and I think that’s awful,” Martinez said.

During and after the panel discussion, Cook apologized for his remark about #MeToo and explained that he is also from Tennessee.

“I think because this is a sensitive issue, it’s quite often the case that some people feel offended and that’s something I need to be aware of and so does everybody else,” Cook said after the panel. “What’s not offensive to one person may be offensive to another and that’s a learning.”

After the event, Stoves told The Rider, “I’m really appreciative of the opportunity today. It was a really good opportunity to talk directly to students about this important issue.”

To report an incident of sexual misconduct, call Student Rights and Responsibilities at 665-5375 on the Edinburg campus and 882-5141 on the Brownsville campus.

Counseling services are also available for students at Cortez Hall 237 in Brownsville and University Center 109 in Edinburg.

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