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University of Maryland, Baltimore County junior Cierra Pope, of Clinton, checks out literature distributed at the a Dating Violence Awareness Night hosted at the school Thursday, Oct. 27.
University of Maryland, Baltimore County junior Cierra Pope, of Clinton, checks out literature distributed at the a Dating Violence Awareness Night hosted at the school Thursday, Oct. 27. (Jon Bleiweis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

As October — Domestic Violence Awareness Month — comes to a close, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County group took on the topic Thursday night.

A Dating Violence Awareness Night was hosted by UMBC's Relationship Violence Awareness and Prevention Advocates, in partnership with Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland, a nonprofit that each year helps some 5,500 families and individuals struggling with domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse and care-giving issues.

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About 10 students were on hand for a presentation by poet and UMBC freshman Benjamin Ballah, along with a talk by Jacki Stone on vicarious trauma — the idea of taking the burden of others — and how to deal with it. Stone is a community health and safety specialist for the college.

The goal of the event was to educate fellow students. Even if the information reached one student, it would spread to many others through social circles, said Natalie Puig, a junior global studies major at the Catonsville university.

She said violence isn't just physical — it can be demonstrated emotionally or mentally.

"It sounds quite basic, but it's actually the most powerful tool that any human will ever use for any other human ever," she said about education. "There's no other way to say it."

Samantha Siegel, a sophomore dance and psychology major, said she knows a few people who have turned to her for help in times of trouble, but does not think it's a problem specifically at UMBC, compared to any other college campus.

Kelley Rainey, director of domestic violence services for Family and Children's Services, said there is an increase in relationship violence between ages 16 and 24, an age range that is high at risk.

National statistics show that nearly 50 percent of women and 40 percent of men report experiencing relationship violence for the first time between the ages of 18 to 24, according to the nonprofit.

"Even though we have talked more recently in the last 10 years about domestic violence and relationship violence, it still feels secretive," she said. "It's important to bring awareness out that it's not OK.

"It's really important to understand the what, the why, the how do we fix it, just because it affects a lot of people," she said.

FCS reached out to the college to host the event, which was put together by students at the school.

"This is an opportunity to be really proactive and do something up front rather than students just learning something and applying it," Stone said. "They're taking an active stance in saying it's an important issue and we want to invite people to the conversation."

The event occured as the university is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights for how it allegedly mishandled a rape report from a UMBC student. Both Stone and Rainey said the event was unrelated to the investigation.

The investigation, which remains open, started July 19. The department will not disclose any case-specific facts or details about the investigation.

In an August interview, attorney Wendy Murphy, who is representing the UMBC student, said the student was drugged, raped and beaten by a fellow student on campus last year. She declined to be more specific about the date.

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Murphy said the student was discouraged by UMBC officials from reporting the incident to Baltimore County police. Murphy said the alleged assailant said the encounter was consensual. At a disciplinary hearing, Murphy said, the university found the alleged assailant was not at fault.

The case at UMBC is one of nine open sexual violence cases at five postsecondary institutions in the state. Nationally, there are 283 cases under investigation.

UMBC spokeswoman Candace Dodson-Reed could not comment on the case, but said the university is working with the federal department and providing information.

UMBC is one of 10 colleges in the Baltimore area that, since Oct. 1, has had access to $750,000 in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Justice to provide education and training for sexual assault issues. The funds will be administered by Loyola University of Maryland over the next three years.

Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this report.

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