University to hold sexual violence listening sessions

| Managing Editor

The Washington University Title IX Office and the Relationship & Sexual Violence Prevention Center are teaming up to host a number of listening sessions for students to provide feedback on how the University addresses sexual assault and sexual violence.

The sessions come following a range of criticism directed at the way the University handles cases of sexual violence, including two Student Life op-eds published late last semester, and in the midst of three active federal Title IX investigations against the University, opened by the Department of Education in early July. However, administrators say the idea for the listening sessions manifested early in the summer—before news of the federal investigations.

“Really, starting back in December, I think there have been some very public issues that have come up and some criticisms of various aspects of the way the University handles these matters,” Title IX Director Jessica Kennedy said. “We’ve included students in our task forces [and] in our working groups to try and improve all of these things, but I think this is the first time that we’ve given students just the ability to give us feedback directly—not having them be part of a group or a process, but just letting them sort of share their feelings.”

Three separate hour-and-a-half long sessions have been scheduled for Sept. 14, Sept. 18 and Sept. 26, and each session will be capped at 15 students. Sessions will be filled on a first-come, first-serve basis but should there be enough demonstrated interest, Kennedy said the University would be open to hosting more.

The first two sessions—on Sept. 14 and 18—will include two parts. First, senior administrators will join the students to listen and answer questions, then, for the second half, administrators will exit the room, and the rest of the discussion will be peer-led. Students who are trained as facilitators for “The Date,” a sexual violence prevention program for incoming students, will lead the session, and notes will be taken on posters around the room to be shared with administrators later.

“We hope that they’ll feel comfortable sharing things with the administrators, but if they’re not, we wanted to give them that space and that safety to do it without us there,” Kennedy said.

Provost Holden Thorp, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori White, Director of the RSVP Center Kim Webb and Kennedy will likely be among the administrators present. Kennedy said the University is considering including more senior administrators from the Office of Student Affairs but is trying not to overwhelm the room with administrators, given the intimate setting.

Kennedy said the University hopes to hear feedback on a range of aspects related to the way the University handles sexual violence, from the issue generally to prevention and education efforts to the investigative and University Sexual Assault Investigative Board (USAIB) process. After receiving the feedback, she said the offices would distill the information, share it with campus partners and determine next steps.

“We’re hopeful that people will have a chance to express their feelings in whatever way they choose, but we also hope and expect that they’ll be providing really constructive feedback and ways that we can improve things—whether it’s the process that can be improved, whether it’s communication that can be improved, whether it’s ideas they have about prevention and education efforts we could be adopting that they’ve heard about or seen other places,” Kennedy said.

Nothing is off limits, she added, saying that a revamp to the USAIB process could be on the table should the conclusion of the feedback support it. The only stipulations the federal government imposes on universities that receive funding is that some sort of Title IX process exist and a Title IX coordinator is appointed. After that, the University has free reign to determine how that process actually works.

“The goal really is to analyze the information that we’ve got and then figure out what that means in terms of what we should be doing better—if it’s adding new resources, if it’s reimagining some of the resources we have, if it’s just better communication and what needs to be communicated better,” Kennedy said.

The University already is looking at the failings of the process, prevention and education efforts, Kennedy said. The length of time the USAIB process takes—a criticism she said they’ve been aware of for a long time—is among the concerns she expects to hear, as well as questions about accommodations and support for students accused of sexual violence.

“Everything’s a trade off—no system is perfect,” she said. “We’ve included students all the way along in creating the process, in assessing the process a year and a half ago and all of those things, but depending on what we hear, everything will be up for discussion and change, assuming it’s viable.”

Webb, the director of the RSVP Center, added that she also expects to hear critiques about a lack of sensitivity and calls for more trainings devoted to it.

As a confidential resource, Webb said she’s in a “unique position” to know what sort of feedback typically comes from students, many of whom confide in her, unlike most others on campus that are University-employed and thus “mandatory reporters.”

“I hear a lot of the feedback, so, I really hope that students will take this opportunity to provide feedback because they have a lot of important things to say that can inform senior administration [and] that can inform the University,” she added.

Students can sign up for the sessions using an online sign-up form on the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs’ and the Relationship & Sexual Violence Prevention Center’s websites now.