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Facebook Post Blasts BU Hotline Glitch

University tests sexual assault support system, adds fixes

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Last Wednesday night, Allison Francis called the after-hours operator at the Student Health Services (SHS) crisis hotline, the University’s first line of support for victims of sexual crimes. Prompted by recent sexual assault allegations against two BU hockey players, Francis made the call, she says, to test the University’s emergency support system.

What happened next alarmed and disturbed her. In a Facebook post that Francis (COM’11) made the next morning, she reported that when she asked what resources were available in terms of rape and sexual assault, a male operator told her that there were no services for sexual assault or rape victims at that number. Francis writes that without asking about her well-being, the man then gave her a phone number for BU’s general medical hotline, which led her to an automated menu with an option for sexual assault emergency. That option, in turn, led her back to the first number she had called.

“It was a useless loop of automated menus that provide no real resources or response to sexual assault,” she wrote. “Boston University has neither an emergency support system for victims of sexual assault nor staff members trained in responding to rape crisis situations.”

Within hours, Francis’ post went viral. By noon on Friday, at least 150 people had shared it. Francis also wrote about her experience on her blog, Sparkle All Day, and via her Twitter account, @silverspeakers.

The system glitch, which elicited more than 40 comments on Facebook, troubled more than Facebook readers. David McBride, director of Student Health Services, was deeply distressed, as well as perplexed. On Thursday, McBride posted to Francis’ Facebook account, acknowledging that she had been given misinformation by the operator and apologizing to anyone affected by the error.

McBride says he quickly clarified the protocol and available services with the answering service verbally and in writing. He says Boston University has a very well developed system for addressing the needs of survivors of all crimes, including sexual assault.

“The irony in this situation,” says McBride, “is that this is something that our crisis counselors Beth Kozik and Maureen Mahoney do all the time. This person was looking for information, and was digging to see how the system responded. Unfortunately, in this situation it didn’t work. There are countless situations that go well and students get the care that they need.”

Margaret Ross, director of SHS Behavioral Medicine, says that as a result of the incident, the protocol now explicitly directs the answering service to first inquire as to the safety and well-being of the caller. At the mention of sexual assault, the service then immediately pages the on-call crisis intervention counselor, who then contacts the caller directly.

The crisis hotline gets dozens of calls each year from students who have been sexually assaulted. They are connected with crisis counselors, whose job—among many others—is to visit the emergency room with victims, provide them with counseling, and make sure they receive information on off-campus resources.

McBride explains that there are two phone numbers for after-hours help, and they are rerouted to separate, private answering services in Massachusetts. The main SHS line (617-353-3575) attends to general medical emergencies and includes an option that sends callers to a crisis hotline in case of sexual assault. That crisis hotline number is the same as the BU Behavioral Medicine line (617-353-3569), which is answered by an operator who records students’ contact information and medical concerns. The operator then pages a University mental health clinician, who contacts the student directly. In cases of sexual assault, says McBride, one of two BU crisis counselors is pulled into the loop.

McBride says the wife of an SHS staff member successfully tested the system Thursday night to ensure she was routed to a clinician when she claimed to have been sexually assaulted. And additional anonymous tests are planned for the future. He also says the University is negotiating with another company that would merge the separate after-hours lines.

The SHS director acknowledges that his office is understaffed and says that having more hands on deck would help, but that he doesn’t see the University swapping its after-hours answering service for the more expensive services of a clinician answering the phone around the clock. “Most medical offices and student health centers that have after-hours coverage use an answering service to relay information from callers to the clinician on call,” he says.

Gina Scaramella, executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, says her office offers an after-hours crisis hotline, adding that schools can contract with the center to handle such crisis calls. Among local colleges, however, Harvard is the center’s only client.

In a Friday posting on Facebook, Francis urged the BU community to “put pressure on BU to increase support to Student Health Services and the Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism so they can more adequately provide the sexual assault resources they strive to.”

Ariana Katz (CGS’10, CAS’12), codirector of the BU Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism, shares office space and often interacts with crisis counselors and says she’s heard only positive things about their work.

Still, Katz’s center issued a press release on Thursday calling for the BU administration to hire an additional full-time staff member to work with rape and sexual assault survivors, to implement mandatory training for coaches, athletes, faculty, and student leaders through the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, and to initiate a zero-tolerance policy for convicted perpetrators of rape and sexual assault that would require immediate and permanent expulsion from the University.

“Allison Francis saw something symptomatic of a larger problem,” Katz says. “We’re seeing sexual assault not as an individual occurrence, but a larger issue. And we’re not going away.”

Francis seconds the center’s recommendations. “We can’t just end the conversation here,” she says. “It’s not as if a post on the Student Health website is enough to make this all okay.”

“It’s critical that all students feel safe and cared for,” says Ross. “We want students to realize that there is help available, 24/7, 365 days a year and that there is a medical clinician, an administrator, a crisis intervention counselor, and a Behavioral Medicine clinician on call at all times.”

9 Comments
Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

9 Comments on Facebook Post Blasts BU Hotline Glitch

  • SG on 02.27.2012 at 6:09 am

    First of all I would like to commend Allison Francis for her spirit and passion for ensure the safety of women in the Boston University community. We should all (students, staff, and administration) take note and follow her example regarding issues we are passionate about. Individuals can make meaningful changes to the institutions we are daily immersed in. At the same time we must aware of the limits that curb all policy change. Every organization has a set amount of resources, be it money or staff usually both, they must work with. However, this is not an excuse for the BU administration to overlook ways on how to maximize resources in order to provide comprehensive and robust critical services, in this case that of sexuall assault support. So my point is twofold, students change the bereaucracy that is BU and administration must continually seek to maximize their resources and resort to the lack of resources excuse.

    Now I remain critical of the solution of constructing systemic approach to address the issue of sexual assault. I think The Center has a idea in mind, but in practice the solution will not achieve its purpose. In the short term creating a programs and policy that requires staff to be aware and knowledgable of how to be with sexual assault will keep this topic fresh in everybody’s mind. However, In the long run policies and programs that make routine the issue of sexual assault might have the adverse affect people not seriously caring about it. An example of this is the D.A.R.E program which sought to create a generate of youth that are drug free. However, it is naive to think that drug consumption is not widespread at BU or the rest of the current college age generation. Logically, if any population would be willing to forego drugs it would be one that is highly educated and can determine the negative consequences of using drugs. Yet, that is not the current reality. We are the D.A.R.E. generation and yet we ( not everyone but significant portion) see the consumption of drugs as ok. D.A.R.E, the system approach to curbing drug consumption, did not achieve its purpose. It is a similar case with sexual assault. We can institutionalize policies to prevent it, and in the short term this will probably reduce assault significantly. But in the long term these types of policies tend to be forgotten or simply overlooked. Sexual assault is a societal issue that will never be cured. It has happened before, it has happened now, and it will happen in the future. If we choose to go with the insitutionalized route, we must proceed knowing that this solution has serious limits. The education of sexual assault must happen early in a child development and if we wait till college it will have been to late.

    • gwallan on 02.27.2012 at 8:43 pm

      “First of all I would like to commend Allison Francis for her spirit and passion for ensure the safety of women in the Boston University community.”

      As for the boys and men they can see to their own safety. I wonder what would happen if a male victim tried to ring. He’d probably be laughed at or called a liar as they are consistantly in my country.

      Those victims aren’t even an afterthought for you are they SG? Even a college education hasn’t opened your mind.

  • A on 02.27.2012 at 9:11 am

    “glitch”? are you kidding me? get it together, BU.

    • Hah on 02.27.2012 at 9:57 am

      Amen.

    • Edward Miller on 02.28.2012 at 5:01 pm

      ^^ BU ’10

  • L on 02.27.2012 at 11:24 am

    “Glitch?” …Glitch? Not exactly the best word to describe what happened here at all, BU Today. A “glitch” is “A sudden, usually temporary malfunction or irregularity of equipment” or “An unexpected setback in a plan; a hitch, a snag.” Neither of these exactly represent what happened. What happened was that BU’s Crisis Line is an automated system, which was in no way unintentional; then the line was picked up by two misinformed people, who didn’t know protocol, which is again, not a glitch, but a complete failure to provide a service that the system was set up for. It’s not a glitch. It’s a breakdown.

    The fact that we have an automated system for our crisis hotline has always been endlessly annoying to me, especially last semester, as I sat on my bed, stewing in my own isolation and inability to reach people, contemplating, for about the billionth time, taking my own life. I dialed the crisis hotline, hoping to find some kind of solution or answer beyond what I’d been able to find online, and was met with an automated system: a mechanical voice that listed a menu of options, none of which sounded like “help, I’m possibly going to kill myself, or maybe not, but damn if it doesn’t sound like a good idea right now.” So I hung up the phone, ignored the problem, watched some Daily Show and went to sleep.

    The automated system constructs a wall between the person in need of help and those who could provide it. For a lot of people, actually seeking help for a problem you’ve just sort of been handling is a big step, and a hard step. The automated system constructs one more barrier, and creates one more reason for people like me to put our problems on the shelf and not confront a thing.

    TL;DR THE INFORMATION LOOP IS A PROBLEM. BUT THE EXISTENCE OF THE AUTOMATED SYSTEM ON A CRISIS LINE IS A BIGGER PROBLEM.

  • Jan on 02.27.2012 at 9:04 pm

    Surely an automated response line for people in crisis, or even an uninterested operator reading from a script and promising a callback, is not the proper response to the report of a situation as serious as sexual assault. If there is an organization that can offer a personal response to these calls, it seems important to investigate that option. BU shouldn’t get a name for being more misogynistic than Harvard! Kudos, though, to the BU Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism for their suggestion of mandatory training.

  • T on 02.27.2012 at 11:25 pm

    I pay BU more than $50,000 a year and the solution to their problems is to say there’s a “glitch?” Don’t tell me they cannot pay for someone to be there at night, just with my tuition they would manage to do it… BU it’s a complete joke sometimes.

    • T on 02.27.2012 at 11:26 pm

      And I’m a guy! But everyone should be safe in a campus like the one BU has… there is no excuse.

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