A student movement advocating for better university management of sexual assault cases gained traction last week after the Georgetown University Student Association came to an understanding with administrators to increase awareness campaigns and expedite planned initiatives.
Students and administrators made agreements to improve the marketing of campus resources for sexual assault survivors, further educate students about bystander intervention and continue plans to implement a campus climate survey.
The movement began July 21 after Zoe Dobkin (SFS ’16) and Willa Murphy co-authored an opinion piece in The Hoya (“I Stand With Willa, I Stand With Survivors,” thehoya.com, July 21, 2015) that detailed Murphy’s experience with campus administration following her rape. Murphy, claiming little university support, began to struggle in classes and was subsequently expelled. The piece ignited dialogue between students and administrators regarding the university’s responsibilities toward sexual assault survivors in the following month.
Murphy’s story sent waves across the university community upon its publication.
Dobkin launched a social media campaign, “#IStandWithWilla #IStandWithSurvivors,” questioning administrators about their handling of Murphy’s case and calling for a re-evaluation of the university’s sexual assault policies.
The following day, GUSA convened with a group of student activists and requested a meeting with university administrators to address concerns about the university’s sexual assault policies and initiatives, such as the lack of advertising for resources for survivors and limited education on bystander intervention.
Administrators also publicly expressed their solidarity. Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity Rosemary Kilkenny and Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Jeanne Lord, in their capacities as Title IX coordinators, responded with a viewpoint (“We Stand with Survivors,” thehoya.com, July 22, 2015), recapitulating the university’s continued efforts to create a better environment for survivors of sexual assault.
In an interview with The Hoya, Kilkenny said that her professional duties are driven by her own personal commitment toward ensuring the safety of students.
“As a mother of two children who have gone to college … I am extremely committed and very concerned,” Kilkenny said. “I don’t know one administrator who is not working around the clock to make sure that we have a safe environment for all our students.”
Approximately one week after Dobkin and Murphy’s piece was published, Olivia Hinerfeld (SFS ’17) shared her own experiences as a survivor of sexual assault in a viewpoint (“A Shared Obligation,” thehoya.com, July 29, 2015), encouraging the community to create a more survivor-centric campus.
Hinerfeld said that she decided to publish the piece to encourage the community to collectively take action on the issue.
“I wanted to emphasize the importance of bystander intervention to the average Georgetown student and I wanted to show survivors they are not the only ones that have experienced [sexual assault] on Georgetown’s campus,” Hinerfeld wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Statistics can be exceptionally telling, but sometimes people need to see a face in order for something to be real to them.”
Meanwhile, the #IStandWithWilla campaign gained momentum when approximately 20 students participated in a chalk-up at Red Square on Aug. 7. Students wrote encouraging messages to survivors and further pressured the administration to act upon student concerns.
Prior to the meeting on Aug. 10, GUSA distributed a four-page memorandum to administrators listing its demands, which were the result of weeks of policy research and deliberations amongst student activists. GUSA had a follow-up meeting on Aug. 24.
During the two meetings, administrators expressed their support for more effective awareness and marketing initiatives. In particular, an agreement was made to update the user interface of the sexual assault resources website, with further improvements scheduled for the fall semester.
The groups agreed on the increased promotion of resources for sexual assault survivors by adding campus resource contact numbers and information on stickers in bathrooms and on the back of GOCards.
According to Hinerfeld, several other universities such as George Washington University and American University have already started similar awareness campaigns.
“I believe that both of these tools could easily and inexpensively be implemented at Georgetown,” Hinerfeld wrote.
Students and administrators found common ground in discussing ongoing processes, such as the hiring of a full-time Title IX coordinator by September 2015 and the continued development of a campus climate survey.
Although student activists are pushing for the university to implement the survey by January 2016, Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson said that care needs be taken in order to create a useful survey.
“We want to make sure [that] when we do the survey it gives us the best information in at least a couple of different ways. One is giving us an understanding of what happens in our community, so we ask questions framed in a way that will do that,” Olson said. “[We want to] be able to compare our responses with other responses with other universities that give us a kind of context that’s valuable.”
Another item on the memorandum was the establishment of an ongoing educational program centered on bystander intervention that serves as a follow-up to the mandatory “I Am Ready” session during New Student Orientation.
Hinerfeld said that the university should continue to engage students in the dialogue in order to effectively promote bystander intervention.
“Research shows that having conversations about sexual assault one time during freshmen orientation will not substantively change a culture,” Hinerfeld wrote. “The concepts brought up in these discussions need to be reinforced on a consistent basis in order to make a real impact.”
GUSA’s final request in the meeting was to streamline the process of gaining re-entry into the university following a medical leave of absence.
In an email to The Hoya, GUSA President Joe Luther (COL ’16) said that this process would be more accommodating to survivors of sexual assault.
“We know through anecdotal evidence that the process for accessing resources and accommodations is often overwhelming and requires survivors to continuously repeat their story to multiple offices, which can be re-traumatizing,” Luther wrote. “We want to make it possible for survivors to be able to work one-on-one with a single staff member who would coordinate all of these services, resources and processes and take the burden off the survivor.”
Overall, both GUSA and administrators were pleased with the outcome of the negotiations.
“Though we may not see eye to eye on every issue, we understand that only through engaging with the administration in a productive manner will we be able to make effective, tangible improvements for the student body,” Luther wrote.
Olson echoed a similar sentiment, noting that both parties shared the same values.
“We care about these issues as much as our students do,” Olson said. “We have that shared commitment and shared goals in this really important conversation.”
Hinerfeld expressed optimism toward making substantial changes in creating a safer environment for survivors.
“I am confident that important and necessary changes for survivors will emerge from these negotiations,” Hinerfeld said.