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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Sexual assault prevention specialist hired, hopes to connect with students

Published: October 18, 2013
Section: News, Top Stories

Brandeis announced the hiring of a Sexual Assault Services and Prevention Specialist on Oct. 7, welcoming Sheila McMahon to the staff while hoping to bring awareness about a sensitive topic. McMahon will begin Nov. 1. Brandeis has had numerous sexual assault cases in the past, from allegations of sexual assault last January at a fraternity party to a case in 2012 where a Heller School student allegedly raped a female undergraduate student repeatedly. In an interview with The Hoot earlier this year, Dean of Student Life Jamele Adams stated that “one sexual assault is one too many; and any occurrence should be reported.” The hiring of McMahon illustrates Brandeis’ firm stance on this topic.

McMahon has an extensive background in preventing sexual violence and aggression. After studying English and Women’s Studies at Boston College, McMahon studied at Harvard University. In May, she will receive her Ph.D. in social work. She researched at the Center on Violence Against Women and Children at the Rutgers School of Social Work and spent four years as the director of Boston College’s Women’s Resource Center. McMahon also has as a background as a community organizer and advocate for progressive policy.

“I anticipate the community will find her to be approachable, compassionate and articulate,” said Associate Dean of Student Life Maggie Balch in an email conversation with The Hoot this week.

In an email sent out to Brandeis faculty, staff and students Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel explained McMahon’s duties. “She will coordinate advocacy services for survivors of sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking, conduct outreach and education to promote a healthy campus environment and serve as a liaison to student organizations,” he stated.

“During her interviews she was very excited to interact with students, to get to know them, to figure out how she might be a resource and/or advocate for all students on campus,” Balch said. “Students were the focus of all her answers, so I’m sure she will figure out a way to be readily accessible and responsive to our campus community.”

McMahon’s position will be full-time. A committee spent about a month interviewing for the position. “Campus-wide involvement from students, faculty and staff has been integral throughout the process. All three constituencies were represented on the search committee, and all three groups have met with candidates when they visited campus,” said Director of Athletics Sheryl Sousa, the chair of the search committee for the sexual assault counselor, to The Hoot earlier this year.

“It is clear in her interviews that she is eager to get to know students, because she cares… Introducing yourself and giving her a huge Brandeis welcome will go a long way,” Balch said. While there were only two incidents of forcible sexual advances reported in 2011 (the most recent year data was available) according to the Brandeis Police website, many may go unreported, or students may not be sure where to go to. In an interview with The Hoot earlier in the year, Director of Public Safety Ed Callahan reported that everyone might not feel comfortable going to the police with an allegation of sexual assault. While the case may often filter down to Public Safety, students may feel too intimidated to speak after an attack.

Brandeis students can also seek help from services such as Community Living, the ICC, Student Activities, the Dean of Student Life, Student Rights and Community Standards, Public Safety, Community Service, the Health and Psychological Counseling centers, the Chaplains, the Title IX coordinator and more.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of hiring McMahon is that students will be completely sure which source to turn to, as her entire position revolves around protecting students from sexual assault.

“She brings a powerful combination of individual counseling skills, community programming experience and knowledge of leading-edge, evidence-based intervention in the area of sexual assault services and prevention that will be a tremendous asset to our community,” Flagel said in his email.