Two years after the introduction of a Peer Sexual Misconduct Advisor program for undergraduate students, the T.C. Williams School of Law has seven of its own confidential peer advisers trained in Title IX policy and emotional support.
The Peer Sexual Misconduct Advisor program was by two Westhampton College students. PSMAs are confidential resources who can advise students on reporting sexual misconduct and Title IX procedures, and who can attend meetings with students for support.
Law school PSMAs, or LPSMAs, are law students who are trained the same as undergraduate PSMAs.
The first group of seven LPSMAs officially began working in their roles at the beginning of this academic year. They function in much the same way as the undergraduate PSMAs, with a few differences.
All PSMAs wear the same buttons on their backpacks or bags to identify themselves. Like the undergraduate PSMAs, the LPSMAs also have a confidential email, . But the maximum wait time for an email response from an LPSMA is 24 hours, compared to two or three hours from an undergraduate PSMA.The LPSMAs can also be reached through a hotline.
There are currently 10 undergraduate PSMAs serving 3,236 undergraduate students, according to the Office of Institutional Effectiveness. The seven LPSMAs serve 386 law students.
All PSMAs cannot share any names or information shared with them by students.
The program intentionally expanded with law students as advisors, rather than having the existing undergraduate PSMAs act as advisors for law students, Allison Tinsey, who graduated from the law school this past spring and helped start the LPSMAs said.
Law school students have different needs from undergraduates because of differences in their living situations, the school culture and their social events, Tinsey said. Most law students live off-campus and attend social events off-campus.
“I also think that the whole goal of the PSMA program is that it is a peer-to-peer resource,” Tinsey said. “It made sense that your peers at the law school were facilitating the program rather than reaching out to an undergrad student for assistance. As a peer law student, you’re going to be more attuned to the needs of a law student rather than an undergrad.”
But Tinsey said that law students didn't tend to use the resources that were available to all University of Richmond students, whether it was Counseling and Psychological Services or the gym.
“I could preach all day that law students need to learn how to manage stress," Tinsey said. "It’s better to do it now and figure it out now before you’re out practicing, especially when those resources are free.”
Kristen Day, a CAPS psychologist and the adviser for all PSMAs, worked with Tinsey, who was a 3L at the time, to get the LPSMA program started, beginning in January of this year.
Tinsey first sought to recruit a group of younger law students who were interested in the program. Next, they began to have a few cursory meetings to go over how the undergraduate PSMA program could be adapted for the law school.
Then, Tinsey and Day opened applications for LPSMAs and conducted interviews, along with the co-leaders of the undergraduate PSMA program, with candidates in the spring. Collectively, they chose eight students to be LPSMAs, but only seven remain now.
Those seven were trained with the undergraduate PSMAs at the beginning of this school year. Training is a three-day long process and includes information about Title IX policy and procedure and from departments such as Safe Harbor, CAPS, the Student Health Center and University Police, Day said.
Adapting the program for the law school involved a lot of different discussions, Tinsey said. She explained that the program's organizers wanted to make sure that the LPSMAs would also be able to help students who faced sexual misconduct or harassment in internships or a professional environment.
Another topic of discussion was that the LPSMAs needed to be independent from the law school administration so that students understood that talking to an advisor wouldn’t affect their standing in the law school, Tinsey said.
One of the biggest problems to be tackled was the honor code, Day said. The LPSMAs were able to get an amendment to the honor code so that they could remain confidential and not have to report honor code violations, Day said.
With that hurdle out of the way, the next was gaining trust, Day said.
Day described the law school “like a small town where everyone knows each other,” but said that it could also be competitive.
“I don’t know that any of the students really trust it yet,” she said. “Also, because it’s such a competitive school, it’s like, if I talk to this person and they know I’m struggling, how is that going to then influence their perception of me in the classroom? I think that’s probably a little different than undergrad because undergrad is bigger. Because there’s less likelihood of talking to someone you know.”
Caroline McCance, a 3L and LPSMA, said students had been using the LPSMAs as an informative resource and LPSMAs had distributed their business cards to almost the entire law school. She couldn’t say whether any students had used them as a confidential resource yet.
One of the big goals for the LPSMAs is to ensure sustainability, McCance said.
“The longevity is key to the success of the program because the longer the program is around, the more trust is built, the more resources are used and the more impact we can have on the law school as a whole,” she said.
Five of the seven current LPSMAs are graduating in the spring. There will be an interest meeting at the end of this November for new LPSMAs, followed by marketing pushes in January, the opening of applications in February and interviews in March, Day said.
They’ll probably try to keep the number of LPSMAs to roughly seven, she said. But for right now, she’s still focused on the program gaining traction, rather than expanding it.
“I’m just trying to develop the roots of the program and make sure it’s going to stick and grow and we’ll see from there, what would be the best for their school, what they want,” Day said.
Feedback to the program has been positive, McCance said.
“A lot of people have expressed a real sense of gratitude for the existence of the program,” McCance said.
Faculty members have been receptive, McCance said. Faculty members and most staff members at the law school are mandatory reporters, meaning they have to report incidents of sexual harassment or violence if a student shares it with them. Now, faculty have the option of directing students to the LPSMAs, who do not have to report, since they are a confidential resource.
McCance decided to be an LPSMA because she loves her community at the law school, she said.
“I really wanted to help folks out who I know and love and want them to kind of be able to have a resource if they need it and know that a resource is there even if they don’t need it,” she said.
Tinsey said she hoped students would use the LPSMAs.
“Even if one person over the entire school year and summer reaches out, that’s worth it, that’s worth having,” Tinsey said.
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