By Ruth Steinhardt
The George Washington University issued its most recent climate survey last week, aiming to gather information from students on their understanding of sexual violence and how it affects them.
The survey’s format, questions and distribution differ from those in previous years: All students are invited to participate, for instance, instead of just a pre-selected sample group. And respondents will be able to hover over terms like “consent” and “assault” to get a brief definition and ensure clarity of response.
These changes are, at least in part, due to the input of a unique coalition of students, faculty and staff comprising GW’s Committee on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (CSAPR).
“The committee is intended to build bridges among students, faculty and staff and to elevate voices across the community,” said Title IX Coordinator Rory Muhammad. “It functions as a centralized location for discussing and addressing issues related to sexual assault.”
Alongside student leaders and interested faculty and staff, the Title IX Office formed the CSAPR in 2014. Leaders from GW Students Against Sexual Assault were among the committee’s founding members, as were members of the Student Association. Its goal was to work with the Title IX office to facilitate GW’s new and ongoing efforts to prevent and respond to incidents of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.
In the years since, the CSAPR has been responsible for some of the most visible changes to GW’s sexual violence prevention initiatives. Since 2015, incoming students have been required to complete both in-person and online training modules on sexual assault prevention and response. So have resident advisors. Expansion of the Title IX Office has increased its ability to conduct personalized trainings for student organizations and other interested community members. The HAVEN website, which provides a centralized resource on Title IX issues at GW, recently underwent a redesign for increased accessibility.
Last year, the CSAPR also held its first public event: an open town hall at which community members could air their concerns about sexual violence and the university’s approach to it.
Many of the committee’s initiatives this year stemmed from that conversation. Student leaders, for instance, expressed uncertainty about how to deal with organization members who violated GW’s Title IX policies. In response, the CSAPR recently collaborated with the Center for Student Engagement to draft language for student organizations to include in their charters. As of March, the CSE now requires organizations to include that language in order to register with the university.
“GW is committed to maintaining a safe, responsible and respectful atmosphere on campus, and preventing sexual violence is a priority for us,” said Caroline Laguerre-Brown, vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement. ”The committee’s work over the past four years reflects that commitment.”
By the time next year’s freshmen complete their mandatory training, GW’s entire undergraduate population will have been formally educated in issues around sexual violence on campus. But faculty on the CSAPR say that professors, too, need access to that knowledge.
Ivy Ken, associate professor of sociology, has been a member since the committee’s inception. She said many faculty members “have no idea what to do” about Title IX issues they observe, or about issues their students and colleagues report to them.
To combat that dearth of understanding, faculty members led by Director of Disability Support Services Susan McMenamin created a brief and accessible guide for faculty and staff. The guide defines the issues in question and lays out best practices for engaging with the subject. Information ranges from the highly specific—what defines a “responsible employee” required to disclose reports of sexual violence, for instance—to the more general, like how to listen to an individual making a sensitive disclosure.
It also contains suggestions for creating an inclusive and supportive classroom environment, including a recommended “syllabus statement” providing students with resources on sexual violence.
“We want to put together all the resources we can for faculty, just to introduce them to these concepts,” Dr. Ken said.
In its early days, the CSAPR required confidentiality of its members in order to ensure a safe and honest dialogue. Recently, however, the committee has begun to open itself to the GW community at large. Since April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, for instance, the committee and its partners have organized a month of themed events, including talks, workshops and a resource fair.
Senior Kalpana Vissa, co-president of SASA, has been involved with SASA throughout her time at GW and has been on the CSAPR since she was a junior.
“My role in SASA is pretty much student-led and student-focused,” she said. “So I was excited to join the committee, because it was a chance for students, staff, faculty and administrators to come together regularly and address issues that are affecting people across the entire university. We set collective goals regularly, and we work on those together. It’s an effort by the university to say ‘Hey, we can do something—let’s do something.’
“Our hope now is that people know who we are and can use us as a resource,” Ms. Vissa said. “We are here to listen to everyone’s needs and concerns—students, faculty and staff. We have the ability to do a lot, especially as we go more public.”
Multiple resources are available to members of the GW community seeking help or advice about sexual assault, discrimination or harassment. The university’s website, Haven, provides a central location where visitors can find information about harassment and abuse, what to do if they are witnesses or victims and how to report incidents confidentially. Members of the GW community also can request meetings and presentations tailored to specific departments or groups.
The Colonial Health Center features a trauma services coordinator to help support students who are survivors of sexual assault. The sexual assault response and consultation team (SARC) responds 24/7 to help victims of sexual assault online and at 202-994-7222.