By Ruth Steinhardt
Incoming George Washington University students underwent a new mandatory training program this fall, part of the university’s comprehensive strategy to prevent campus sexual assault and to respond effectively to the issue.
Over the summer, incoming freshmen and graduate students were required to complete “Think About It,” a self-guided online training module from Campus Clarity that examines the interconnected issues students face on coming to college, including substance abuse, the spectrum of sexual violence, Title IX rights and responsibilities, healthy relationships and bystander intervention. Upon completion of “Think About It,” students were required to sign up for mandatory in-person training sessions during Welcome Week and the weeks after during which they could discuss these issues with peers and facilitators.
The program is the result of priorities identified by staff and experts across the university, including in the Division of Student Affairs and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, in collaboration with student leaders and student organizations.
About 97 percent of students have completed the entire program, said Carrie Ross, assistant director for sexual assault prevention and response.
“Since this is our first year, we are focusing on compliance and individual open-ended feedback from participants [as metrics of success],” Ms. Ross said.
At one in-person training session, several dozen freshmen gathered around tables in a meeting room in the Marvin Center. Facilitator Angela Esquivel, an area coordinator in the Center for Student Engagement, began with a refresher, making sure participants had a shared understanding of words like “consent” and “coercion,” before moving into open-ended, difficult questions: what are the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships, how alcohol can influence a hookup and how to check in with a sexual partner.
When students had volunteered necessary components of consent—including unimpaired state of mind, unambiguity and the ability to revoke at any point—Ms. Esquivel asked how participants would react to signals of uncertainty or an altered state of mind from a partner.
“Stop,” said one freshman, without hesitating.
“Stop and what?” Ms. Esquivel prodded gently.
“…Don’t continue,” the student responded, prompting slight laughter.
It was a response typical of workshop participants, who seemed informed and eager to contribute to a culture of shared responsibility at GW.
“Most feedback has expressed gratitude that the program exists,” Ms. Ross said. “But some students commented in written feedback that the material was review—that they are already familiar with concepts such as consent and felt that there were too many required conversations about it at the beginning of the year.”
The Colonial Inauguration sexual assault prevention and response program from the summer included references to bystander roles and consent in its "Scenes From College Life," information that was reinforced during floor meetings in residence halls.
“Message saturation is certainly not a bad outcome,” she said. “Providing as many opportunities as possible for students to talk about consent and healthy behaviors during this time is absolutely part of our strategy.”
Since the program is in its first year, Ms. Ross said, it has room to expand and evolve. She said she hopes to find new ways to make training sessions meet students where they are.
“I would like to consider offering choices to students in terms of a session theme,” she explained. “Students already involved in violence prevention efforts could choose an advocacy track, for example, and learn more about getting involved here at GW regarding sexual assault and relationship violence prevention. Students could choose a ‘party smart’ or ‘bystander intervention’ track, perhaps, where similar basic information could be covered but the in depth focus would be on one of those topics.
“I would also like to offer survivors or others who have been personally affected by relationship violence or sexual assault a track that is more targeted towards honoring those dynamics.”
Freshman Connie Lamos said the training was helpful, and that the multiple avenues from which it came helped her retain the information.
“I will never forget the definition of consent,” she said.
Ms. Ross said she would continue to engage students on the topic as the year continues.
“I will continue to reach out to individual groups for smaller and more focused conversations,” she said. “It is clear that students are interested in this as a topic and in talking about what it all means and looks like for them. Students are, for the most part, interested in identifying actionable ways they can help reduce sexual and relationship violence in their communities and how they can respond appropriately when it happens.
“We just have to keep up that momentum.”