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The unsung agents of change

As the University fails to provide enough support to sexual assault survivors, student-run organizations take the lead

Editor's note: Story contains mentions of sexual assault and abuse 

Every morning a cool breeze blows between academic buildings, Lawn rooms and various statues scattered around Grounds. One of these statues is of University founder Thomas Jefferson, who stands facing Rugby Road — home to dozens of the University’s fraternity and sorority houses. Today, many students are fighting to stop the violence that often takes place in these establishments and across Grounds. 

Ava Proehl / Courtesy Ava Proehl

A candlelight vigil will be held in honor of the victims of the Atlanta shooting starting Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in McIntire Amphitheater to give community members the opportunity to reflect on the recent acts of violence directed at members of the Asian American community.

As Jefferson's institution, the University cannot be detached from its founder’s past. Not only did Jefferson keep 607 persons in slavery over the course of his lifetime, but he was also responsible for the rape of 14-year-old Sally Hemings, one of the enslaved persons at Monticello. The statute of Jefferson that stands in front of the Rotunda is a jarring reminder of this institution's history. 

In the midst of the quiet and unusual summer of 2020, a Twitter page — @ExposedUVA — was born. This page gave a platform to survivors to speak out about their abusers. @ExposedUVA publicly named alleged abusers at the University by allowing survivors to direct message the account about their experiences while keeping the survivors themselves anonymous. However, for many, this page and the multitude of examples given about sexual assault on Grounds only highlighted and reiterated what students already knew — sexual assault education and prevention does not hold as prominent a position in the University’s agenda as it should be. 

“[Prevention is important] especially when the majority of people being assaulted are going to be first years as they are the most vulnerable to victimization,” said Sarah Carter, Class of 2020 alumna and co-founder of UVA Survivors. 

According to the University’s 2019 Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct, 19.1 percent of first-year students are victims of sexual assult or misconduct, along with 13.9 percent of second-years, 11 percent of second years, and 9.9 percent of fourth years. 

In early April, UVA Survivors — a student activist group that aims to combat the culture of sexual violence at U.Va. — published a list of demands directed at the University administration, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights and the University’s Title IX office. The group demanded that structural and holistic changes be made to University culture, focusing on University accountability, comprehensive expansion of education and training on sexual violence and increase of survivor resources provided. 

Courtesy Ava Proehl

“It is up to people higher up in the administration to start caring about us and recognizing us,” Carter said.

Jefferson’s legacy has impacted Charlottesville and the University for many centuries and with Jefferson still being idolized in University culture today, student groups are working towards a more equitable and safe environment for students and survivors of assault. 

As it stands, there are three main groups based around sexual assault education and prevention advocacy at the University — Culture of Respect Educators, Take Back the Night and UVA Survivors. CORE is the main education platform for sexual assault prevention for all students while Take Back the Night specializes in organizing a series of events where students can share their experiences and UVA Survivors works to implement structural changes at the University to support survivors. 

To the student leaders of these organizations, it often feels like students are shouldering the burden of reducing and ending sexual assault on Grounds — and not the University itself.

“At a place that's like U.Va. … the University likes to center student self-governance without any sort of administrative support, which is frustrating because right now, it's just us — it's us and it's UVA Survivors and it's Take Back the Night, and that's it,” said Gabby Ringer, CORE president and fourth-year College student. “Other than that, who else is there? Whose sole purpose is to do this?”

A History of Sexual Assault on Grounds

Take Back the Archive, a public history project that goes back over a hundred years, details the history of rape and sexual violence at the University. From 1809 to 2016, there has been a record of 506 reports in The Cavalier Daily on reported rape, sexual assault and sexual violence including but not limited to events at the University and in the Charlottesville area. 

Furthermore, according to the 2019 Campus Climate Survey, 24.5 percent of undergraduate women and 7.4 percent of undergraduate men experienced sexual assault while enrolled at the University, and in February of 2020, there was a report of a brutal gang rape in in an on-Grounds residence hall. But even these staggering numbers do not encompass the many instances of sexual violence that go unreported.

The University’s biggest program is Hoos Got Your Back — which recently replaced the Green Dot program — and mainly focused on bystander intervention as a way of preventing sexual harm. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, this program included a large Wahoo Welcome event for first-year students, a bystander intervention training campaign for Corner bars and restaurants during the summer and a small group training that was usually given to Greek organizations and dorm communities.

The person who ran this program quit unexpectedly in January of 2020, Goddu said, and her position along with two others in the Office of Health Promotion related to sexual violence prevention were filled in the fall of 2020. 

On the response side, changes to Title IX policy were implemented Aug. 14, 2020, which limit the power of Title IX in some ways but also give additional power to universities to pursue cases no longer covered by Title IX. These new powers include the ability to reduce the threshold of evidence to a “preponderance of the evidence” meaning “more likely than not” — a choice that was left up to the school’s discretion — which would, in theory, make it easier to meet the evidentiary standard and hold perpetrators responsible. However, this led to only a marginal increase in the number of suspensions and expulsions from Title IX offenses. 

However, student leaders still question whether these programs and steps are enough given the continued prevalence of the issue on Grounds.

Stepping towards sexual assault prevention

CORE was founded in 2019 when two groups, One in Four and One Less, came together to form one organization. While both focused on sexual assault prevention, the membership of One in Four only consisted of men while One Less consisted of women. While One Less was open to accepting non-binary people, there was little to no gender diversity in the group and consisted mostly of cisgender women. The name One in Four was an acknowledgement of the Association of American Universities sexual assault statisic that states that nearly one in four — 23.1 percent — of female college students will experience sexual violence or misconduct while enrolled in college.

While CORE focuses on sexual assault education, they also do advocacy and activism. Just this calendar year, resident advisors were required to host one of CORE’s programs — Dorm Norms, a presentation for first-year students that covers consent, intimate partner violence, bystander intervention and the basics of survivor support. However, this does not mean first year students are mandated to attend the training. Rather that RAs must simply hold a training so students have the opportunity to attend.

“We're all happy that Dorm Norms is mandated, but it's also like the University is requiring and agreeing that this education is necessary and important, but still not giving us institutional support and having it rest entirely on the shoulders of a group of undergraduates,” said Anne Whitney, a Class of 2020 alumna.  

According to Ringer, CORE does the primary sexual assault prevention education for first years beyond the sexual assault prevention training modules all students are required to take by the University before the beginning of the fall semester. The modules, that take approximately 90 minutes to complete, are intended to inform students about the conduct that is prohibited by the University's Policy on Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence, as well as ways that students can all be active bystanders and community leaders in preventing harassment and violence in our community.

Ringer explained that there are only a small staff at the University working on sexual assault prevention, often in tandem with other duties. Just this year, the University decided to discontinue the bystander intervention talk that first-year students typically receive at John Paul Jones arena their first week of school. While this may not have been feasible due to gathering limits imposed because of COVID-19, the decision was made before COVID-19 restrictions were put in place in March of 2020. 

But even with the programming in place, bystander intervention education is not the end-all, be-all of sexual assault prevention, as it fails to tackle disparities on how comfortable people feel engaging in situations like those presented based on identity or personality. To Ringer, it is critical that the University invest in comprehensive consent education and training on violence prevention. 

While CORE struggles with receiving external support from the University, it is also working on internally ensuring that its organization wholly supports survivors. On July 6, 2020, CORE released a statement regarding the history of the organization, revealing that there had been multiple instances when CORE’s parent organizations removed executive board and general body members due to them being perpetrators of sexual assault. According to the statement, “in the four years before One in Four disbanded, at least one perpetrator per year was removed from the group.” 

One way CORE has chosen to tackle this issue is through an anonymous reporting form that is sent out to all members. The reports are reviewed by the executive board to decide whether or not there was a violation of the standards of conduct such as discrimination of any kind or harassment and assault of any kind. Both parties — the person that made the report and the person who violated the standards of conduct — are allowed to submit a written or oral testimony. The executive board then decides on a course of action, which has typically been the removal of the member. Ringer believes that this is something all organizations should do. 

“It's that the University isn't going to protect us, so we have to protect [ourselves],” Ringer said. “I think it's just being willing to not put members of your club or members of your community in harm's way.” 

CORE is also working to change the selection process of the organization to make the CIO a place where all voices from the community can be heard.

The new process, which is now virtual because of the pandemic, will be less intensive, partially after an entire round of the previous process was eliminated. Previously, there was a first round written portion where applicants answered questions related to their interest in sexaul assault prevention and in the second round, it was interviews between one applicant and two to three members of the organization facilitating the interview. Now, the first round is a sign-up form to get more information about CORE and what they do, which also opts people into the second round. The second round is a discussion group where two CORE members and two to three applicants are on Zoom together and discuss questions related to sexual assault prevention. 

Ringer explained that when she first joined the CIO, she wondered why a selection process existed at all. In an effort to stop gatekeeping, the new selection process is crafted to bring more people into the conversation.

Beyond its own executive board and members though, CORE has also been grappling with how to move forward in light of the fact that many assailants are students in high-ranking positions, such as student government officers, which has been a historic issue and barrier facing activists.

Student education and advocacy 

Take Back the Night, whose University chapter was founded in the 1990s, is one of the oldest sexual assault awareness groups on Grounds. This CIO puts on a plethora of educational and advocacy events in April — Sexual Assault Awareness Month — and conducts year-round advocacy for sexual violence prevention. 

Its main goals include making University students more aware of the resources available to them such as Hoos Got Your Back and the Survivor Support Network, encouraging students to be part of the solution to preventing sexual assault on Grounds and helping to correct the image of sexual assault which usually centers on the cisgender white women's experiences. 

The group creates healing spaces for survivors and advocates through events such as vigils and days of healing where survivors can tell their stories with their name attached or anonymously. TBTN also holds a Healthy Masculinity event where participants do activities that help them unpack social norms around masculinity that may lead men to engage in behaviors that are harmful and how people can start unlearning these norms in themselves. In the past, they’ve also run workshops on strategies for sexual violence prevention in the LGBTQIA+ community, panels on Title IX policy, and facilitated discussion on the intersectional experiences with violence that survivors of color face and how to best support them.

“We know that LGBTQIA+ and women and femmes of color are more likely to be harmed because of the intersecting oppressions that affect their experiences with sexuality,” said Kiera Goddu, Take Back the Night co-chair and fourth-year College student. “We’ve rolled out specific events and programs regarding sexual assault in these communities the past few years in partnership with other organizations such as CORE.” 

Whether or not this year’s Take Back the Night events will be in-person, virtual or hybrid is not yet known.

Ava Proehl / Courtesy Ava Proehl

Despite the relaxed restrictions, University leadership warned that it is still just as important for University community members to continue following masking requirements, social distancing guidelines, gathering limitations and travel restrictions — even if one has been vaccinated for the virus. 


Survivor support and activism

The newest sexual assault education and prevention group founded on Grounds is UVA Survivors, which formed after Carter — one of its founders — experienced an extremely difficult and traumatizing Title IX case.

Carter recalls not knowing any other survivors while going through their case, leading them to feel disheartened and isolated from those around them as others could not fully understand what they had experienced. These feelings caused them to put their energy into something productive and fruitful — creating a sexual assault group for survivors that would be intersectional from the very beginning. 

In September 2019, Carter reached out to as many groups on Grounds as possible and handed out quarter sheet flyers printed from Alderman Library. At the first meeting, seven people came — a feat for Carter. The first attendees and those who joined in the coming weeks became the core of the group. 

In the following months, the group spent a lot of time discussing who they were, what their message was and what the end goal is. 

“So many late nights, we spent imagining what a University would look like free of sexual violence, free of interpersonal violence,” Carter said. 

These conversations eventually led to the UVA Survivors list of demands, which advocates for institutional accountability from the University, a more robust education and training for a broader range of people and resources for survivors. 

Many students are left feeling dejected after their Title IX case, and in 2018, there was even a case where an assailant was found responsible for the alleged assault yet still received his degree from the University. But according to Carter, this is not a one-off occurrence of an individual being found guilty of the assault by the Title IX office yet still not facing little accountability for their actions. Carter explains that Title IX is notorious among survivors members for issuing no or very light sanctions for perpetrators, as they unfortunately shared the same experience.

“A few members of UVA Survivors that had gone through the Title IX process,” Carter said. “All of us had pretty awful experiences, and we expressed all of them.” 

The group also believes that authority figures at the University need to start recognizing and caring about these issues. 

“The University does not provide enough support for survivors, especially compared to peer institutions that have confidential advocates, more robust prevention staff and better staffed Title IX offices,” Goddu said. “Title IX cases run months over the 60-day timeline outlined on their website.” 

The inefficient staffing and action from the University do not stop there. While the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women's Center and Counseling and Psychological Services serve as the staple resources for survivors, there are often not enough confidential therapists properly equipped to provide the necessary support, according to student sexual assault advocates. While there are other places for therapy on Grounds such as the Sheila C. Johnson Center, they are often not confidential, as the information a student shares could be recorded and shared with doctoral and graduate students. 

“There needs to be therapy groups first off, but there needs to be more therapists,” Carter said. “If all of the therapy is booked up by the second week, sometimes [within] the first couple days of school, there's a problem.”

According to Counseling and Psychological Services, however, additional staffing is not the only answer to addressing the mental health needs of the community. CAPS Director Nicole Ruzek explains that in addition to counselors who can provide helpful interventions, students also need to be educated on how they can positively impact their own mental well-being and inform them of the various prevention programs offered by the University, such as WahooWell, Silver Cloud and Thrive from the Peer Health Educators. 

Yet, there is an inherent lack of spaces that exist solely to support survivors according to Carter. While CAPS is confidential, it also serves the larger University community, and there are not enough therapists to support survivors. All CAPS therapists are generalists who have training in a broad range of concerns, including working with trauma, but the team is only composed of 20 therapists, 5 psychiatric providers, and 3 care managers. This, in turn, leads students to seek out therapy within the Charlottesville community, which can be very expensive and take away resources from Charlottesville residents. 

Student advocates feel that these problems are only going to be exacerbated by the pandemic and transition to online learning. While CAPS has hired 4.5 therapists and 1 psychiatric nurse practitioner in the past six months, there will be more people seeking services and students may not be able to talk openly, even with employees held to confidentiality standards, because students often live with roommates, limiting privacy.

Claire Kaplan, who was the Director of the Gender Violence and Social Change program at the University, recently retired, and while her role still remains unfilled, Latoria White is the new program coordinator. 

Still, the lack of administrative support from the University leaves a lot of work to be done in the Office of Health Promotion and Wellbeing but this same office also deals with addiction, nutrition services and more, meaning it’s not a place solely to support survivors. Until this school year, there was no one specifically working only on interpersonal violence. Now, there are three new staff members. 

“We are glad that there are paid workers doing the work, and we hope that they use our demands as a guide to what survivors and all students need to thrive at U.Va.,” Carter said. “We know they are limited in resources, since even three new staff members isn’t enough to educate and support thousands of students.”

The problems with confidentiality and accessibility have only worsened with the transition to online learning. Many services, including therapy, have moved online which brings up a plethora of problems. Therapists are licensed in Virginia and can only work with students currently residing within the Commonwealth, as licenses do not allow therapists to treat patients across state lines. This effectively leaves out-of-state and international students who chose to live at home during the pandemic as they are not eligible for treatment from University providers. 

“Another concern is the modified virtual training for fraternities and sororities, FOAs and for first-year students,” Goddu said. “Because we lack the trained educators to provide sufficient training, it may be more difficult to reach these communities virtually.” 

These discrepancies in the services and support for survivors leave students feeling hopeless. 

“We deserve support resources and to be heard,” an anonymous member of U.Va. Survivors said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “We honestly shouldn't have to go through a Twitter page. We shouldn’t have to only stick to whisper networks. The Twitter page exists because our justice system has failed us.”

Carter expressed that this form of sharing can be extremely harmful to both the survivor and other survivors that come across it. 

“IP addresses can be easily found, so they could easily hack into the messages,” Carter said. “Twitter, as we know, is not the safest platform to share stories, and their identities could be revealed. A judge could subpoena the person to give over the messages.” 

A safer platform to share stories, Carter states, is the Do Better Campaign. It provides an anonymous platform for survivors to share their stories making it a safe space to come forward.

The need for discussion and action from members of the community and the University is long overdue and student organizations can not do all the work by themselves. The University needs to take action and work alongside them, according to these student leaders. 

“We [the students] cannot provide therapy for each other,” Carter said. “We cannot protect each other. We cannot be the ones that are educating every single person.”