By Terri Finch Hamilton
Republished from Centralight Winter 2017
When Steve Thompson taught self-defense at CMU decades ago, young women often told him they'd been sexually assaulted but didn't feel comfortable seeking professional support.
"I heard the voices of survivors every day," he says. "It broke my heart."
He also was frustrated and angry at the myths and misinformation.
“You can hear the relief in people’s voices when they
know you’re there, not to judge them or criticize, but to support them in any
way they need.” — Nicole Buozis
"People would say, 'She shouldn't have gone to the Wayside wearing that,' or 'She was drinking and went home with somebody, so of course that happened,'" Thompson says.
Fed up, he wrote a letter to then-dean of students Bruce Roscoe.
"I said, 'How could we let this happen?'" Thompson recalls. "He said, 'Let's have coffee and talk.'"
The result: Sexual Aggression Peer Advocates.
A groundbreaking concept
SAPA, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, has become the foremost program of its kind in the country.
Its flagship education program, "No Zebras. No Excuses," is a staple of CMU freshman orientation and has grown into a company headed by Thompson that shares the message all over the world. The performance-based "No Zebras" training consists of seven vignettes that replicate situations of sexual assault, drug-facilitated sexual assault, intimate partner violence, stalking and harassment.
Steve Thompson demonstrates how an attacker might get
close. Photos by Chelsea
Why zebras? When attacked by lions, zebras scatter until the predator takes down an unfortunate, isolated victim. After the attack, the zebras go about their business until the next attack. Thompson's message: Stand together. Don't be a zebra.
Beyond the education program, SAPA provides trained peer advocates to respond to sexual assault crisis calls. SAPA's key features:
- Volunteer student advocates receive 50 hours of intensive training, then teams are available around the clock to answer crisis calls at 989-774-2255, accompany survivors to the hospital or police station if needed, or communicate on live chat.
- It's confidential.
- In a strong show of alumni support, former SAPA advocates from all over the country return to campus each year to help train the incoming group.
"Once a SAPA, always a SAPA," Thompson says, and he gets a bit choked up.
"I'm emotional about this," he says. "I cry at every training. It's been the most important thing in my life, other than my kids."
The need is great
"If there are 8,000 females on a campus, several hundred of them will be assaulted in an academic year," he says. Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.
In SAPA's first year, about a dozen students called on advocates for help, Thompson says. Now, more than 200 students each year reach out, finding trained advocates ready to listen — any time.
Roughly 100 CMU students applied to be an advocate this academic year. After a comprehensive application and interview process, 50 were selected. They were trained over two weekends in September.
Those weekends are warm reunions for SAPA alumni, who travel from all over the country.
"I haven't missed a training since 2000," says Susanne Stefanski, a former SAPA student advocate who graduated from CMU in 2002.
After earning a master's degree in counseling, she became a SAPA counselor at the CMU Counseling Center.
Now a behavioral health consultant in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Stefanski says SAPA makes a difference for so many.
"Not only are 50 students on campus doing this every year, but each year 20 or 25 of them graduate," she says, "and they're out there spreading the message to not be a bystander, challenging the myths that are out there. Steve has really left a legacy, through all those people whose opinions are now changed."
"I was there for that person"
Nicole Buozis, '17, spent three years as a program advocate and was back in September to help with training.
Her experience changed her, she says.
"At first, after I'd hang up from a call, I'd think, 'Oh, I should have said something else, I should have said that better,'" Buozis recalls. "But I soon realized even if I didn't word everything perfectly, the important thing is that I was there for that person, to listen.
"You can hear the relief in people's voices when they know you're there, not to judge them or criticize, but to support them in any way they need," Buozis says. "It's incredibly rewarding to listen and be a resource."
Thompson retired as CMU's Sexual Aggression Services director in 2015 and is now the full-time CEO of No Zebras and More, the company he started in 2012 to provide sexual assault prevention education throughout the world, from universities to the military.
He loves that it all started at CMU, "a campus that cares."
"SAPA gives comfort even to survivors who never reach out," Thompson says. "They know there are a whole bunch of people on this campus who give a damn."
SAPA trainees debrief
and go over their training experience. Photos by Chelsea Grobelny.