Going the distance: A world-class trauma care center 45 minutes away

I wrote this story for the Daily Trojan‘s Spring supplement, Chasing Zero, which took an inside look at sexual assault. My piece examined USC’s relationship to the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center and why some students feel USC isn’t doing enough to help victims. 

When Valerie Lopez started looking into ways to tackle sexual assault at USC, she stumbled upon a question that would try to answer for months: Why doesn’t USC offer forensic exams for victims? In the class ITP-499: “Innovation: From Idea to Impact,” Lopez — a sophomore majoring in law, history and culture — and her group decided they’d try to bring rape kits to campus, an idea that led them to conduct legal research and interview staff members at USC and across the country.

Currently, victims of sexual assault who come to the Engemann Student Health Center are referred to the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center, approximately 45 minutes away from campus. The RTC boasts of the country’s leading experts in trauma care, but the lack of on-campus forensic exams spurred Lopez and two other students to investigate the feasibility of bringing rape kits to USC. Though Lopez and University administrators share a goal, their views on treating victims differ in a major way. USC believes that the best option for rape treatment is at a full-service facility filled with specialized professionals, even if it is a long drive away. To Lopez, though, that distance could make all the difference.

RAPEKIT-GRAPHIC

Professional assistance

Engemann clinicians are trained to take vaginal and rectal swabs, but the health center staff feels that the RTC is better equipped to treat victims. The Los Angeles County Hospital has a rape treatment center as well, but Engemann has a close relationship with the RTC and values its educational options and support services.

“That is the best place for them,” said Mildred Wenger, interim co-medical director at Engemann. “If it was my mother, my child, my friend, I would want them to get the best care. We can give them the best care that we can, but we’re not full-service.”

Wenger stressed that the options its staff provides, in addition to its demeanor and tact, make the RTC a necessary resource. Another key reason Wenger would refer a patient to the RTC is Engemann’s inability to collect data, like hair samples or DNA. She explained that there is no chain of custody, or paper trail of physical evidence. Her staff cannot collect this data, but  Wenger explained that the RTC can — which ensures that if a patient decides to press charges or file a restraining order despite any initial reluctance, the option is still available.

“We don’t destroy the evidence ever,” said Gail Abarbanel, founder and director of the RTC.

The center provides free care for children and adults who seek help after a sexual assault. It’s open 24 hours a day, and since its inception in 1974, it has served more than 50,000 victims. Over the years, it’s seen advancements in DNA technology and improved access to the criminal justice system.

“The RTC has very comprehensive services, and victims have lots of choices and options, so they don’t have to go to many different agencies,” Abarbanel said. “The most important thing is to help them have access [to] 24-hour emergency care and forensics and counseling.”

According to Abarbanel, the center sees about three to four new victims a day —  some, but not all, of whom are college students. Other victims come every day for ongoing services. When a victims come in, the staff members give them options so they can make informed choices. The process includes medical care, even if victims aren’t aware of any physical injuries.

Though the RTC is not funded or managed by USC, the treatment center has a close relationship with Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services on campus. According to Wenger, the RTC seeks to fill in the gaps of what the Engemann staff cannot accomplish. Wenger and her team frequently meet with RSVP and have full clinical staff meetings to emphasize sensitivity training and patient comfort. But despite these efforts, Wenger would rather send a victim to Santa Monica, because there, she’s confident that they will take care of every aspect of a patient’s journey.

“I don’t like to do anything here if we can’t do it right,” Wenger said.

Struggling for support

Despite the quality of care at the RTC, students have expressed concerns about the accessibility of the center. Lopez feels that 45 minutes is too far, especially immediately after an assault.

“Honestly, from personal experience and the experience of others I’m very close to, the first few hours are critical in terms of who you tell, who you trust,” Lopez said. “If USC was my immediate resource, if I needed to be physically taken care of both medically and with a forensic exam, I probably would come back to RSVP to get therapy or file a Title IX case. I would feel more trusted at the school.”

A potential solution the group proposed is to train current Engemann employees to conduct forensic exams so students could have immediate help in a community they are already familiar with. They researched the cost and time commitment of training and verified the information by looking at schools with trained nurses, including Oregon State University and Indiana University. A sexual assault nurse at Indiana University told the group that the cost of training was between $400 and $500 per nurse, including 40 hours of training, and that the state typically pays for rape kits.

“I’m sure it’s more complicated than we know,” Lopez said, “but if other schools do it, and they’re much bigger schools like Indiana, I feel like we’re definitely capable.”

USC is far from the only elite university without on-site rape kits. In Lopez’s research, she found that only about four schools in the U.S. News top 100 and only about 10 out of all schools in the United States have forensic exams for sexual assault.

Determining feasibility

Lopez and her group have already met with multiple administrators and have plans to present to Provost Michael Quick on May 2. Lopez explained that they can’t market their proposal as a gain for the University, because although relatively cheap, implementation of the plan will cost money, and she believes with more accessible treatment, that reports of rape will go up — which might end up looking negative for the University.

“We’re having trouble finding a reason that would benefit [USC],” Lopez said. “That’s where we’re at now. There’s not much more we can do.”

This isn’t the first group of students trying to bring rape kits to campus, and it may not be the last. In 2014, students created an online petition to bring sexual assault nurse examiners to campus, which garnered nearly 700 signatures, and University officials responded by emphasizing the high quality of the RTC.

“I think the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center is wonderful,” Lopez said, “and it’s beautiful that we even have that resource. They have so many different [services] — I just think that it’s nothing our health center isn’t capable of.”

Erika Lee contributed to this report.

Super Cyber Sense

Super Cyber Sense – Runner up in AthenaHacks for Best iOS App (sponsored by MakeSchool)

I worked on the game’s idea and repurposing a Swift template for our concept. I also did all the graphic design (aside from the question slides).

We wanted to teach kids about cyberbullying in an engaging and memorable way. Super Cyber Sense is a Flappy Bird style Swift game in which our hero’s town is in need of help. The character navigates through the city until they find houses with problems. Once they encounter an “alerted” house, they’re faced with a tough situation and a list of nuanced responses. Super Cyber Sense then tells the user what their style of response is, and offers a suggestion to be a more supportive friend.

We used a Flappy Bird tutorial from MakeSchool as a base for our app, which we coded in Swift.

Devpost

Github

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Some simple graphics I made for the game

Picasso

Second place winner of Best Use of Google Cloud ML API at Caltech’s hackathon, Hacktech

 

Picasso uses machine learning to teach kids how to draw shapes. It prompts you with a random shape to draw, and the Google Cloud algorithm checks if that’s the correct shape. Because it uses machine learning, it doesn’t just check if you fit the mold of a specific triangle, for example — ideally, it should identify any triangle. We also display all of the algorithm’s guesses on the right. If you don’t draw the shape correctly, you can press the “Show Answer” button, and Picasso will trace the shape out for you.

There are a ton of features we’d like to add: different levels (once you master circles, squares and triangles, you’d move on to trapezoids or octagons), different categories (numbers, letters, maybe even animals). I did the design and worked on the front end, improving my HTML/CSS and JavaScript.

Try it yourself: https://picasso-160507.appspot.com/

Devpost: https://devpost.com/software/picasso

Code: https://github.com/triki97/picasso

USC students embrace relocated Syrian refugees

USC students embrace relocated Syrian refugees

DAILY TROJAN

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Sofi Deak poses with two refugee children in El Cajon. Photo used with permission of Deak.

When Lida Dianti turned on the news and saw Syrian children losing their homes, their families and their very lives, she wanted to help in a sustainable way. Her purpose became to give young Syrians something that could never be taken away from them: education.

Dianti founded the USC chapter of Students Organize for Syria in Fall 2016. The organization tutors students in English as part of their Students Teach for Syria program and co-hosts donation drives with UCLA to support families in El Cajon, a city near San Diego.

The Syrian Civil War is currently in its sixth year, and millions have been displaced from their homes. Three years ago, the United Nations called the Syrian Civil War “the biggest humanitarian crisis of our era.” Because of the prevalence of information about the war, Dianti is adamant that the purpose of her club is not to raise awareness.

“People know,” she said. “It’s 2017; we all have iPhones. People are well aware of what’s going on. I’m done having dialogue. I’m done raising awareness. I want action.”

Action is an understatement for Dianti’s role in the club. She spends all her free time on SOS, whether she’s picking up lunch ingredients for the kids, brainstorming ideas for new projects or driving down to El Cajon to help out — a trip she makes every weekend. The dozen or so families she works with in El Cajon know and expect her; they have her number, they know her name and they know her car.

The focus of Dianti’s club is education as she believes it is crucial for refugee children to continue their studies. As a senior majoring in international relations, she had been closely following the conflict. Over a year ago, she began tutoring a Syrian student, someone she still considers a very close friend. After meeting her, Dianti had a personal stake in the war.

“She changed my whole life,” Dianti said.

Dianti wanted to start a tutoring program here on campus because of the high demand for English speaking tutors.

In her experience, there are a variety of reasons Syrian children want English tutors. Primarily, students want to be prepared for placement exams so they can get into universities and make a life for themselves outside of their unstable country. Students also need English assistance to fill out applications for jobs, for asylum and for colleges. A third group simply wants to practice their speaking.

“[When studying a foreign language], it’s very common that reading and writing is easy, but speaking, that can only come from experience and practice,” Dianti said. “The best way to do that is with a native speaker.”

Sofia Deak, vice president of SOS, first got involved as a tutor.

“I had been looking for a way to help out with the crisis going on in Syria and have a lasting impact on the people who were suffering there,” she said.

Deak then helped expand SOS’ work to El Cajon and coordinated volunteers for their donation drives, and has had memorable interactions with refugees on each trip. Families invited her in for Arabic tea or coffee (which Dianti raves about), and one family even insisted Deak stay for dinner. Kids hugged and kissed her after receiving gifts, and one man cried of joy after the volunteers bought glasses for him after he was unable to fill his prescription.

“He was grateful for something that we thought was small,” Deak said.

Deak has been studying Arabic for two years, but knowledge of Arabic is by no means a requirement for tutors or volunteers, given the high demand.

“My Arabic is so bad, but they just want to hang out with you,” Dianti said of her frequent trips to El Cajon.

She visits nine to 15 families each week and has gotten to know each family well. On Jan. 6, she took a young boy to In-N-Out, and they were laughing and eating together despite the language barrier. She would try to speak Arabic, and he wouldn’t understand. The boy would speak English, and she would get confused, but they would both learn a little as they laughed a lot.

“It’s genuinely fun,” she said. “It’s like hanging out with family. They need compassion. They need to be treated like human beings because that hasn’t happened to them in a very long time.”

Dianti graduates this year, but she still has new plans for SOS in the works. Her latest is a program that allows USC students to improve their colloquial Arabic skills and allows refugees to earn some money. Students can study Arabic in school, but she feels that it’s focused on reading and writing formally, not conversing casually. Ideally, USC students could have Skype Arabic lessons from, for example, a Syrian mother with young children who can’t leave the house to work, and pay them $15 to $20 an hour. It’s essentially the inverse of the English tutoring program they have in place, but unlike the English program, there isn’t a huge demand for tutors.

According to Dianti, the hardest part of working with refugees is making promises that are difficult to keep. She said the executive board has no shortage of passion and enthusiasm, but there is a shortage of volunteers, forcing the few dedicated members to overextend themselves and work long hours to ensure they don’t let the refugees down. And yet, they keep doing it, over and over.

“It’s the best thing I’ve done with my life, honest to God,” she said. “They just want people to hang out with, they want to meet Americans, they want to practice English, they want to feel like they’re a part of the community.”