Students, WHIR Center, Work to Protect Community Against Intimate Partner Violence During Pandemic

Picture of the St. Catherine University LifeSafe App on a smartphone, held by a hand on a blurred green background. Students, faculty, and staff submitted recommended changes to protect the community from intimate partner violence.

In February 2021, St. Catherine University MBA student Sylvie Guezeon MBA’22, with the help of St. Kate’s Women’s Health Integrative Research (WHIR) Center and the ideathon winning team from last May, submitted recommended changes and updates to the LiveSafe App — a free smartphone application that provides campus safety information to the University’s community — to safeguard St. Kate’s community facing intimate partner violence during the pandemic.

This interprofessional effort to protect community members from intimate partner violence (IPV) — defined by the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention as “physical violence, sexual violence, stalking, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse” — began May 2020 with a WHIR Center and Center for Sales Innovation ideathon: “Addressing COVID-19 as a Community.” An ideathon is a short, intensive, brainstorming experience where participants work in teams and use design thinking to ideate solutions to existing challenges in their communities. Director of the WHIR Center Katie Campbell, PhD, and Director of the Center for Sales Innovation Mary Jacobs MAOL’10 decided to host the ideathon as a way to build community among students and inspire solutions amid the COVID-19 crisis. “We started a conversation about the opportunity to do a student-led project related to the COVID crisis so they could learn from real life experience and have a positive impact during these difficult times,” says Jacobs. The ideathon was a virtual event, which occurred over the month of May. Students formed teams to meet weekly project goals and check in with ideathon organizers for guidance and mentoring. Eleven teams — consisting of over 30 students total — submitted proposals to answer the event’s challenge. The participants were from 16 different degree programs across the University, including fashion merchandising, dietetics, and philosophy.

“The students were really empowered to think outside the box and look at the crisis that we are all living in as a chance to make an impact,” recalls Jacobs.

The winning team was announced at the end of May. Lisa Barnes MPAS’21, Erika Grinde MPAS’21, Valerie Lessard MPAS’20, and Alyssa Flatmoe MPAS’21 from the Master of Physician Assistant Studies program won with their proposal “Stay Safe MN App Extension: Helping to Solve Domestic Violence Crisis During COVID-19”. In their proposal, they state, “The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that IPV is worsened in any type of emergency, including pandemics like the one we are currently experiencing.” During the pandemic, domestic abuse around the world is increasing due to a number of pandemic-related factors, including shelter-in-place and social distancing orders. The team proposed creating an extension to the Aspire News App, a well-known smartphone resource that supports victims of domestic violence. Their extension would provide current domestic abuse shelter locations, a chat room, and push notifications for safety check-ins.

“I think most of us know someone who has felt the impact of intimate partner violence. It's also an issue we're very likely to confront during our careers as PAs, so creating a tool that would help PAs reach patients felt really productive,” says Barnes. With support from the GHR Foundation’s Academic Excellence Grant, each student on the winning team won $500 and the opportunity to make their proposal a reality.

During summer 2020, the winning ideathon team worked with the WHIR Center coordinator Ciana Burrell MPH, WHIR Center director Katie Campbell, and WHIR Center graduate trainee Sylvie Guezeon, who acted as the project manager. The four MPAS students volunteered their time all summer to meet weekly with Guezeon. Before engaging with software engineers and app developers, Guezeon and the team wanted to ensure their app extension proposal would be able to reach people in an efficient and meaningful way. Together, they created a SWOT analysis, narrowed their target population, and continued brainstorming.

Once school started again, Guezeon took the reins and continued the team’s work with Campbell. Since the team decided their intended audience would be St. Kate’s community and students, Campbell and Guezeon engaged with stakeholders in the St. Kate’s community, such as Public Safety and Access and Success, to discuss opportunities to serve those affected by IPV. Through their discussions, Campbell and Guezeon determined that the LiveSafe App — rather than the originally-proposed Aspire News App — would be the best vehicle to provide IPV resources. The LiveSafe App has been an indispensable resource for the St. Kate’s community during the pandemic, providing COVID-19 resources and symptom screenings, emergency options, and a direct link to Public Safety. Most St. Kate’s students already have the LiveSafe App, which means that many people would have immediate access to the IPV resources. The team provided updates and additional IPV resources to Public Safety, and the LiveSafe App was updated in February.

Guezeon and Campbell both envision this effort to protect the community from IPV as an ongoing endeavor. They are currently working with St. Kate’s Title IX office and the Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women — as well as Public Safety, Access and Success, and other campus stakeholders — to determine the next best steps. Additionally, two undergraduate biology students, Abby Eastman ’22 and Hannah Affolter ’23, are conducting literature-based research to explore how IPV uniquely affects college students. Eastman and Affolter are also working with Guezeon and Campbell to co-author a literature review on this topic with plans to submit their manuscript for publication at the end of the spring semester. Through a series of student-facing events this spring, Eastman and Affolter will share their findings with the St. Kate’s community and promote the LiveSafe IPV updates and resources with the hope of making recommendations to the University to promote the community’s safety from IPV.

 “We were blown away by the amount of student interest in the ideathon last May, even in times of such uncertainty. We hope to use this experience to create similar student engagement opportunities around important research questions that require teams of students from different disciplines to work together,” says Campbell.

The WHIR Center is hosting a similar event from April 10–11 called “Maternal Mortality Hackathon.”