Op-ed: My heart sank…because I understand
Read a letter from our editor, Sam Seekings, about this submission here.
When I read the op-ed in Student Life from a student sharing that she had been physically assaulted by a fellow student and suggesting that other students may have been sexually assaulted by the same student, my heart sank. It is painful to think about all that this student and others may be going through and feeling that, from her vantage point, the University has failed to adequately respond. My heart sank because, as vice chancellor for students, my first and highest priority is the safety and well-being of all of our students, especially any who need our help. It also sank because it brought back feelings I’ve had because I, too, am a survivor.
I was a graduate student. I was the victim of horribly painful sexual misconduct by someone I knew and trusted. The perpetrator was someone who worked on campus in the community where I was studying. The case became public. I was embarrassed that my classmates and professors would find out I was one of the victims (there were several) and would look at me and see me differently. I appreciated the support services available on campus and took advantage of them. I did not have any choice as to whether to report because this case became a criminal matter, so my name did become known to the university and I lost my sense of agency. As time as passed, I have buried this incident as something that happened to someone else so I could move on. But I have never forgotten my anger about having been betrayed by someone I thought I could trust, and the shame of feeling that what happened was somehow my fault.
I have never shared any of this publicly as I never wanted my personal story to detract from my own work or be perceived as a conflict with my professional responsibilities on Title IX issues. However, it is through this very personal lens and this very personal experience that I have become who I am today. This personal experience most certainly fuels my commitment to continuing to strengthen our Title IX policies and processes at Washington University and to work as hard as I can to make sure that we approach these cases in a way that is thorough and fair—that we respond to any formal complaint we receive; that we provide support services for any student involved in the process or who has been impacted in some way by the assault of a friend or loved one; and that we fully and effectively evaluate any potential threats to the safety of our community and take appropriate action. I would not continue to work for a university that I did not believe was committed to all of the above. That is not to suggest that we cannot improve; we can. But the foundational understanding that everything depends on the confidence and trust between us and our students is there, and that is why it is so important for us to get this right.
I do not want to break confidence, share details of an investigation or potentially further victimize a student, so I will be very careful in the way that I respond to the specifics of the op-ed. I am so proud of the courage of our student to come forward. We have to support this student and every other student who needs our help.
At the same time, we bear a heavy responsibility in investigating allegations of physical and/or sexual assault. We know it might sound bureaucratic and insensitive to say that we are committed to adhering to process and being thorough and fair to everyone involved in these cases, but it is extremely important. We try to move as quickly as we can—knowing and appreciating how stressful these situations can be for our students. We also try to make sure that students are aware of all of the resources that are available to them throughout the investigative process.
One critical point in this process is the right of any student to decide whether to formally report an allegation with our Title IX office, our Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards or the Washington University Police Department. For many personal reasons, some choose to pursue formal charges. Others do not. Our role is not to persuade one way or another, but to help a student consider all of the options that are available and what might be best for them. What the University can do from there depends in very large part on the outcome of this decision, which we fully respect.
More generally, at Washington University, based on valuable feedback we have received from students, we are continually working to strengthen our Title IX practices (read more here). We have added staff and resources; we have streamlined the investigation process; and we are regularly considering other ways to be more responsive, more supportive, more thoughtful and more deliberate. This is our responsibility. The University needs to own it and we do, but if you have experiences you want to share, we would be grateful for the opportunity to learn through those experiences. If you want to partner with us, the University always benefits from that and we would welcome it. And, please, if you need help…reach out. I share below some important contacts. We are here for you.
RESOURCES FOR STUDENTS
Relationship & Sexual Violence Prevention Center (RSVP Center): Community health resource committed to prevention education, as well as response, support and empowerment for victims of relationship and sexual violence.
Sexual Assault and Rape Anonymous Helpline (SARAH): 24/7 helpline to support students who have been victimized, are supporting others or who have questions about relationship or sexual violence. SARAH is run by specially trained undergraduate and graduate students.
Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling and Resource Center: Confidential peer counseling group made up of undergraduate students who are specially trained to discuss a range of issues commonly faced by Washington University students.
Habif Health and Wellness Center: Provides student-centered health and promotion services to Washington University students including medical checkups, mental health services, wellness support and health education.