4th Annual Domestic Violence Summit Celebrates Survivors and Focuses on College Students

The takeaway from a meeting of leaders in the community fighting against domestic violence

Staff Writer Elijah Kahula / Photos Courtesy of Elijah Kahula

“It’s our kuleana.” On Oct. 19, these words were printed on the large, purple banner hanging behind the speakers at the 4th Annual Domestic Violence Summit. Held this year at the ʻImiloa Astronomy Center, the goal of the summit was to raise awareness of domestic violence in Hawaiʻi and inspire the community to take action against it. The main focus of the summit was on the issue of domestic violence in the college setting.

The event featured students, faculty, and staff from both UH Hilo and Hawaiʻi Community College in heavy attendance, including Dr. Rachel Solemsaas and Marcia Sakai, the chancellors of HCC and UH Hilo, respectively. Also present were a host of nonprofits dedicated to helping and stopping domestic violence situations.

Many of these organizations set up booths around the room which provided pamphlets with resources for people experiencing domestic violence and opportunities to volunteer with their organizations. Ke Kalahea covered the event to learn more about how domestic violence is affecting students in college, as well as how UH Hilo and other universities handle these cases.

The opening ceremony commenced with a traditional hula and drum performance in which the story of ancient Hawaiians settling the archipelago was used as a metaphor for the courage needed in addressing difficult topics like domestic violence in a community.

After these opening remarks, a panel was formed of professionals who deal with domestic violence, ranging from Title IX coordinators, leaders of nonprofits, and even a Hawaiʻi Police Department investigator. They each shared their unique experiences, demonstrating the difficulties and multi-faceted aspects of domestic violence. Presentations continued throughout the day as the community came to understand and wrestle with the challenges of dealing with domestic violence in Hawaiʻi.

The topic of the first lecture at the summit was delivered by Suzanne Brown-McBride, Interim Executive Director of the Hawaiʻi State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an organization that aims to end domestic violence in the state. The lecture addressed the definition of domestic violence and how the term, while simple, can be a lot more expansive than the initial definition implies.

McBride defined domestic violence with a broad, universal definition: “Domestic violence is any pattern of behaviors that attempts to control or intimidate a partner or family member through the use of fear, manipulation, coercion, isolation, verbal abuse, sex abuse, or physical abuse.” She went on to break down each term within the definition.

McBride emphasized that the term “pattern of behavior” was an overlooked aspect of the definition of domestic violence. Domestic violence, she said, rarely starts with an instance of physical abuse, but instead escalates through the actions of the abuser.

Towards the end of her presentation, McBride related this concept to the cycle of domestic violence, itself a pattern of repeated actions in a relationship. “We’re conflict avoidant,” said McBride. “A lot of us want to believe that the conflict is a one-time thing, or that we’ve figured it out. A lot of us are culturally pressured to accept, forgive, and move on.”

McBride also detailed the subtle or less commonly considered ways in which people are manipulated and abused, including using systems to oppress the victim. Things like calling the victim’s work and trying to get them fired, calling the police on them, or even using online tools like social media to abuse them are common tactics that many may not initially associate with domestic abuse. Many of these tactics are used to make sure that the victim feels helpless and like there is no escape from the situation.

After a break to mingle and enjoy the provided lunch, the keynote came on and addressed the crux of the conference: domestic violence in higher education. The speaker was Jennifer Solidum Rose, J.D, the Director of Institutional Equity for the University of Hawaiʻi system. Her presentation was laden with harrowing statistics about domestic violence through an expansive intercollegiate study.

The survey was sent out to students in order to glean insight into the ways domestic violence affects students. For the UH system, there was a high completion rate for the survey sent out despite the lack of significant rewards involved. “Students care,” said Rose. “They want to talk about this issue and be involved in solutions.”

The results showed that across the board, 20 percent of students in a relationship said they were experiencing some form of domestic violence. “The students in the focus group gave us very rich examples.” One student wrote described an instance when her boyfriend stole her phone away to look through all of her messages. “Students know what these tactics look like,” Rose stated.

Rose went on to pose the question: while policies addressing sexual assault have been in effect for a long time on campuses, why has it taken so long to address domestic violence on campus? She agreed with an audience member who suggested that “while [administrators] are more aware of rape happening on campus, domestic violence is often viewed as something that happens in the home rather than on campus.”

“People think, ‘domestic violence happens in the home, so it’s none of our business,” said Rose. “I think universities felt like they didn’t have the capacity. But is domestic violence and the related stalking happening on campus? Absolutely.”

A batterer who wishes to make sure their victim stays oppressed has every incentive to stop them from getting their degree, argued Rose. Education is a way for people to improve their circumstances, become financially and mentally independent, and thus raise themselves out of their situation. Similar to examples from McBride’s presentation, she mentioned the way an abuser will try to sabotage and manipulate their partner or family member into not attending college.

Rose explained that the Violence Against Women Act, passed in 2014, governs policies at universities concerning cases of domestic violence. It mandates that universities provide written notifications to provide resources. A term that comes up repeatedly in all the presentations is “confidential advocate.” A confidential advocate is a staff member on campus that is given privileged communications with students who are dealing with issues like domestic violence. Much like Title IX coordinators, the main goal of confidential advocates are to make sure that abused people can stay in their classes uninterrupted, as well as to offer them options and resources.

Rose noted that while VAWA was put in place to help students, it also mandates that if faculty are put on notice by a student about their situation, they are legally obligated to report it to an advocate. Thus, UH Hilo’s policy has been to put a disclaimer addressing mandated reporting into their syllabi at the beginning of the semester.

Despite those considerations, Roe still said that talking to a confidential advocate is often the best option when faced with a domestic violence situation in a university setting. “In the context of the university, there’s many things to navigate; however, there are many resources and things that people in this room can do to make sure you still get your education.”