University responds to calls for improved sexual assault prevention

Policy making at the federal level prompts changes


As thousands of students across the country return to their respective campuses, college and university administrators nationwide continue to rethink sexual assault prevention and investigation policies.

The impetus for this focus comes in large part from recent federal initiatives aimed at reducing sexual assault on college campuses. The White House has made addressing this violence a priority in the past year, creating a task force meant to advise the government on ways to handle the issue. The University has shown increased determination in recent months to adapt and improve policies.

Movement at the federal level

In announcing the creation of the task force, President Barack Obama said while there are already laws in place designed to prevent sexual assault and bring perpetrators to justice, the current system is not accomplishing what it should.

In fact, a recent survey conducted by Senator Claire McCaskill, D-MO, of 440 institutions of higher learning demonstrated that more than 41 percent of surveyed schools have not conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the last five years.

The White House task force seeks to change this by finding new procedures to boost prevention and investigative efforts. In a memo explaining its inception, Obama called the task force an “interagency effort to address campus rape and sexual assault, including coordinating Federal enforcement efforts by executive departments and agencies and helping institutions meet their obligations under Federal law.”

In April the task force released its first report, titled “Not Alone,” outlining how to best stem the tide of sexual violence. Among its recommendations were yearly campus climate surveys, greater male involvement in prevention efforts, clearer and more diverse student resources and greater federal enforcement.

These suggestions have received bipartisan support, with senators from both parties joining together to sponsor a bill that would bring many of them into law. This July, McCaskill introduced a bill — co-sponsored by seven other senators — calling to codify much of what the task force encouraged.

The bill, called the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, would introduce new student resources, student body climate surveys and a more centralized and uniform investigation process, as well as broader on-campus personnel training and greater financial penalties for schools that fail to meet compliance.

McCaskill said she was pleased with the bill, suggesting it was apolitical in nature and intended to usher in a formal movement against campus sexual assault.

“To curb these crimes, students need to be protected and empowered, and institutions must provide the highest level of responsiveness in helping hold perpetrators fully accountable,” McCaskill said in a press release. “That’s what our legislation aims to accomplish.”

McCaskill and her co-sponsors are looking to amend the Clery Act — a 1965 law that ties federal funding for schools to their handling of criminal activity. The Act was modified just last year, giving even more reason for colleges and universities to change their approach to sexual assault.
Per the change, schools will now be required to report all statistics for domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking for the previous three calendar years in their annual security reports, along with their methods for dealing with these issues, starting this October.

This has left schools scrambling to reexamine sexual assault related policies and data, with the looming threat of sanctions should they not comply with the amended Clery Act. Although the Department of Education has acknowledged that this may not be fully possible by October, it expects all institutions to make a “good faith effort” to do so.

Trickling down to Charlottesville

All of this means change for the University. Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo said though she believes the University currently has solid policies regarding sexual assault, there is always room for improvement, and changes will now have to be made with federal legislation in mind.

“I do expect that we will be revising our policy in the coming year to address additional guidance and legislation from the Federal government as well as address areas for improvement that we have noticed in working under this policy since 2011,” Eramo said in an email.

In addition, a new position has been added to augment the University’s sexual assault prevention capabilities; Nicole Thomas started in the University’s new Program Coordinator for Prevention position last week, according to Eramo. Eramo also said University members should expect to see new prevention initiatives in the near future as she and Thomas develop new measures.

Additional changes may also come following Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s Thursday announcement of the creation of a state-based task force similar to the White House’s. This state-based force will seek to address sexual assault on Virginia campuses, and includes the assignment of a University-specific officer.

Further changes, such as climate surveys and increased fines, could also be seen in the coming academic year, depending on whether federal legislation addressing sexual assault is passed and what timeline the government gives schools to make changes.

Emily Renda, a 2014 College graduate and former Sexual Assault Leadership Council chair, said to expect to see student body surveys on the issue by spring semester. She said she finds these surveys particularly promising.

“We can’t make accurate changes or assessments without information,” Renda said. “All we know is what we see, what comes through the door. We want to get people who don’t want to report or come forward, how students feel about the system generally, how hostile the culture is for women, LGBTQ, etc.”

Renda said she is not as confident about the success of heftier fines — another proposed legal amendment — for schools that don’t meet compliance. She said she was afraid these fines might be carried out the wrong way.

“I’m not sure fines are the [best] way to go, so much as a forced budget reallocation,” Renda said. “Taking money away from school ultimately takes away money from students. I worry it deprives students of resources.”

She said it would be more useful to force the school to do something like hire a trauma specialist, for example.

Sara Surface, a third-year College student and external chair of the Sexual Assault Prevention Coalition (formerly the Sexual Assault Leadership Council), said she feels everyone involved on staff is trying his or her hardest to help sexual assault survivors and to prevent further sexual violence.

“As far as how the University handles sexual assault, there is no one right answer,” Surface said. “The administration wants to solve this issue as badly as we do. It is important to everyone here and we’re all working toward the same goals.”

Renewed University efforts

This semester, students will witness the launch of “Not on Our Grounds,” the University’s campaign to end sexual assault.

This campaign will first come to life with “Hoos Got Your Back,” a sub-campaign that launches Friday to complete the first phase of the initiative. It aims to raise awareness among first years, who are statistically at the greatest risk of sexual violence in college, and to pull volunteers from across the University. The administration felt student input would allow the University to best plan action specifically for its student body and increase its chances of success.
Surface and Renda were closely involved in planning this initiative.

“Hoos Got Your Back is in some ways like a renewal of the community of trust,” Surface said. “It puts a spin on ‘this is our community’ in a way that says it’s our responsibility to look out for one another. It’s a way that’s more accessible to everyone.”

Hoos Got Your Back largely aims to involve the community beyond U.Va. Carol Wood, a former University spokesperson who has served as an advisor in the development of this program, reached out to the Corner Merchants Association to try to involve businesses in the program.

The response to this initiative has been extremely positive, Surface said, and a number of merchants will be working closely with the campaign, including The Virginian, Littlejohn’s, Mincer’s and Take It Away. Tom Bowe, the owner of Take It Away, sent out a letter further encouraging businesses on the Corner to get involved.

“Students find their way into the rhythms of every business on The Corner,” Bowe wrote in the letter.
“It’s our privilege to play a role in their academic passage! I urge your whole participation in the Not On Our Grounds campaign. This call to action is an opportunity to more fully find mission in our livelihoods, and to make a difference in our community.”

Pre-existing University efforts are also being approached with a renewed vigor, including a training program designed to educate students on how to recognize threatening situations and how to best prevent, intervene and respond to cases of sexual assault.

The program, now in its third year, was created through collaboration by students, staff and faculty, and it seeks to raise awareness among students of resources which are at their disposal should they need them.

University spokesperson McGregor McCance said while all students are being asked to complete the training, it is not mandatory.

“The program is designed to help provide students with as much information as possible on safety in our University Community,” McCance said in an email. “We are asking all students to complete the training program, and the message was delivered to all students. But completion is not a requirement.”

The training strongly encourages students to reach out to peers and University faculty, a tactic aimed at reinforcing students have a community of people to turn to should issues of sexual violence arise.
“The program indicates that faculty is a resource for students,” McCance said. “The point is to encourage people to reach out when they have concerns or questions. The purpose is not to identify faculty or fellow students as qualified treatment providers, but to underscore that they, as frequent recipients of requests for help, can and do help others connect with the appropriate resources.”

Further strides will continue to be introduced throughout the school year. Some will be unveiled by Pat Lampkin, Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer, at the next Board of Visitors meeting Sept. 12, where she will specifically address the University’s changing approach to prevent sexual violence.

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