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Monday, May 16, 2022

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Richmond continues sexual assault education and awareness

As sexual assault on college campuses becomes an increasingly relevant national issue, University of Richmond is engaging in new dialogue, pioneering new programs and working to streamline the process of reporting incidents and providing support for victims.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a school of about 18,000 undergraduates just two-and-a-half hours south of Richmond, has become the subject of a federal investigation after reports that the school's administration routinely misreported sexual misconduct complaints and mistreated victims, according to an article in The New York Times.

A group of UNC students, alumni and one former faculty member drafted a letter to the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of a group of students and alumni who reported that their cases were mishandled by UNC's administration.

In the past year alone, similar complaints have been filed at schools including Occidental College in Los Angeles and Amherst College in Massachusetts, according to The New York Times.

Although these cases are still developing, they have provoked a national conversation covered in The New York Times, The Huffington Post and USA Today about the responsibility of a university to a victim and how sexual misconduct is viewed in a campus setting.

Over the past two years, Richmond has revised policies and renewed efforts for advocacy and awareness, mostly as a result of a letter sent in April 2011 to colleges and universities across the country from the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

The 18-page letter, commonly known as the "Dear Colleague" letter, reminds institutions of Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments and calls for administrators to revisit sexual misconduct policies and prevention measures.

Sexual misconduct is a label for behaviors including non-consensual sexual contact, sexual exploitation, sexual harassment and stalking.

Kerry Fankhauser, associate dean of Westhampton College and deputy Title IX coordinator, said the letter had prompted Richmond's administration to reconsider the way it had been looking at sexual violence on campus by refocusing on rights and measures of support for survivors.

"The whole point of the letter was to level the playing field for the victim," Fankhauser said.

As a result of Title IX legislation, universities have the ability to act as intermediaries, she said. For example, if a victim and an accused student have a class together, the school can remove the accused student from the class before a judicial hearing outcome is reached. Before, the victim would simply be given the option to remove him or herself.

Despite the letter's urgent call to action, sexual assault statistics have remained high. According to the National Institute of Justice, 20 percent of women and 6.1 percent of men are victims of attempted or completed sexual assault while in college.

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According to Richmond's Clery Disclosure Report, there were 13 reports of forcible sex offenses on campus in 2011, which is the latest year of data available. There were four reports in 2010 and one in 2009.

Although numbers are rising, Fankhauser said that cases of sexual assault at Richmond were consistently underreported.

"Based on national numbers, we would anticipate 50 to 60 rapes per year," she said.

The Sexual Assault and Violence Education (SAVE) Project was approved as a new student organization at the end of the 2012 fall semester. It aims to educate the community about sexual assault and provide a forum for discussion about the issue, said SAVE President Christine Parker, senior.

As a student leader on the issue, Parker said it was important to offer survivors the option to report through the criminal justice system, the campus judicial system or to not report at all.

"Each of these are equally valid decisions," Parker said. "We must give the power back to the survivor."

A victim of sexual assault who requested to remain anonymous shared her experience as a survivor of sexual assault on this campus.

The details of her case are also confidential, but her experience provides a glimpse into the way Richmond's administration handles cases of sexual misconduct in a post-"Dear Colleague" climate.

This student described the efforts of the university as collaborative, with the deans working together with campus police, Counseling and Psychological Services and her professors to provide support academically and personally.

The university administration has been pivotal in helping her adjust and furthering the off-campus criminal investigation of the incident, she said.

She credits the handling of her case largely to the deans and said that she now understood the importance of traditions and programs such as new student orientation, proclamation night and investiture, where students become familiar with Fankhauser and Associate Dean Daniel Fabian, who serves as Richmond College's Title IX coordinator.

Fankhauser reinforced the importance of appointing Title IX coordinators with whom students are familiar and have had an opportunity to interact through positive experiences.

"If you're appointing people who students have never seen, in an office they can't find... what is the point?" Fankhauser said.

Factors such as size, endowment and identity of a university give institutions an excuse to say. "It's harder for us," Fankhauser said.

"There are some big schools that are doing it well and there are small schools that are doing it well," she said. "Then there are a whole lot of people in the middle who are trying to figure out how to do it or who just aren't even trying."

Parker said that Richmond was making progress in providing support for victims, but that it was important to remain vigilant.

A piece of that progress comes in the form of Title IX training and the newly implemented "bystander training," which has been a part of new-student orientation for the past two years and will be required for all members of Greek life starting this year.

Panhellenic President Lindsay Hudson said one of her goals as she assumed her position in January has been to educate all members of the Greek community on sexual misconduct.

Bystander training supplements Title IX training and seeks to provide education about what to do if a friend is sexually assaulted, how to identify an inappropriate situation and how to intervene if someone needs help, Hudson said.

"You can't just tell men not to rape someone or women not to dress a certain way," Hudson said. "It needs to be a combined effort from everyone of being aware and trained in what to do."

"A lot of people come into Title IX training and think it's common sense, but there is a disconnect between knowing the information and acting on it. We are hoping the bystander training will bridge that disconnect."

Student leaders, sexual assault survivors and university administrators emphasize education and collaboration among offices as the keys to successful handling of reports. However, sophomore Whitney Schwalm sees a gap in the resources that Richmond offers to victims of sexual misconduct.

Schwalm is working on a proposal to bring assault response and prevention services, or a rape crisis center, onto campus. The center would provide victims with the option of receiving support without filing an official report and going through a hearing, which prevents many students from reporting incidents and therefore receiving support, Schwalm said.

The center would have its own space and would help coordinate with campus police, the health center, CAPS, Title IX training and the deans' offices.

CAPS is a key on-campus resource in responding to reports of sexual assault. Students who have been a victim of sexual misconduct can receive support from any of the counselors, each of whom is a "generalist," and does not specialize in a particular disorder, CAPS Director Peter LeViness said.

For a significant portion of the year, CAPS had a waiting list for students seeking counseling for any reason, LeViness said. The waiting list begins when appointments are unavailable for the next two weeks, and about 90 students have been on the waiting list this year for at least a short period of time.

LeViness said that although few students have had to wait more than one week, it was something that he was concerned about. Since his first year at Richmond in 2002-2003, the number of students receiving counseling at CAPS has doubled from 300 to 600 students per year.

LeViness would be interested in starting a group for survivors of sexual assault if student interest was high enough, he said.

Fankhauser and Fabian are working with Virginia Commonwealth University to submit a proposal for a grant that would provide funding for an advocacy position for sexual assault, stalking and dating violence, Fankhauser said.

Further, Fankhauser said she and Fabian would work with student organizations such as Greek life and Women Involved in Living and Learning in the fall to continue to educate the community.

"We are working on putting a positive spin on things," Fankhauser said. "So that's asking 'What is actually a healthy relationship?' or 'Why is consent desirable?'"

The issue of consent will serve as a focus for SAVE's education and outreach programs in the coming year, Parker said.

"Sexual acts without consent are acts of sexual violence," Parker said. "Consent is something that is voluntary, sober, enthusiastic, non-coerced, continual, active and honest; but most of all, consent is mandatory."

Fankhauser said she did not expect immediate shifts in the number of sexual assaults taking place on college campuses.

"We're talking about a problem that has been going on probably forever," she said. "But it's important to have a clear process so people know who to talk to, where to go and what type of information to share. ... I think that's what some institutions have been lacking."

Sources:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/21/college-sexual-assault-survivors_n_2918855.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/20/education/activists-at-colleges-network-to-fight-sexual-assault.html?pagewanted=all

http://www.usatodayeducate.com/staging/index.php/ccp/universities-criticized-for-sexual-assault-responses

http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/dear_colleague_sexual_violence.pdf

Contact reporter Molly Gentzel at molly.gentzel@richmond.edu

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