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University to add more sexual violence listening sessions, begins to implement changes

| Managing Editor

The Washington University Title IX Office and the Relationship & Sexual Violence Prevention Center will host three additional listening sessions this semester aimed at gathering feedback and answering questions surrounding how the University addresses issues of sexual assault and sexual violence.

The listening sessions follow three identical sessions held last semester, which have already yielded some changes in education efforts, but organizers are hoping a revamped advertising strategy will attract potential attendees who may have been unaware of last semester’s sessions. These efforts come as a part of a greater attempt by the University to address criticism for the way it has handled cases of sexual violence, notably in two Student Life op-eds published last spring, as well as the three active federal Title IX investigations against the University opened by the Department of Education this past July.

“Last semester, I had never advertised anything before and I didn’t really know how to do it. Since then, I’ve learned exactly how [and] what the best ways are to get information out to the students, so I’m hopeful that we’ll get a good turnout,” Title IX Coordinator Jessica Kennedy said. “We got some really good information last semester about things people wanted, and I think we were able to answer a lot of questions, which was good.”

As part of a more aggressive ad campaign, Kennedy said some of her plans include displaying information on electronic boards across campus, setting up table tents in the Danforth University Center and Bear’s Den, putting information in the Residential Life newsletter and reaching out directly to leaders of student groups.

Two listening sessions have dates set, Feb. 19 and March 29, while the third will be scheduled for the week of Feb. 26. Like last semester, two will have administrators present, including Provost Holden Thorp, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori White and Kennedy, while the third will be completely student-led. Sessions will be capped at 15 students, like last semester.

Kennedy added that administrators found the last set of listening sessions helpful for answering questions about the University’s reporting and investigation process and for taking suggestions to improve education and assessment, some of which they have already began to put into effect. Some changes—like adding information to the Title IX website—were easy to make immediately, Kennedy said, while others, concerning the entire process, will take longer to tackle.

“Some were things that are more systemic that—I’m not saying we have to live with them, necessarily—but it’ll be a much more slow kind of change to figure out how things are going to improve,” Kennedy said.

Changes the University has already begun to implement from feedback received in the first set of listening sessions mainly concern issues of assessment, training and visibility.

Kennedy has employed the Relationship and Sexual Violence Initiative, a part of the Institute of Public Health in the Brown School, to assess and evaluate the current Title IX reporting and investigative process as well as the University’s prevention and education efforts. The initiative, which was created in 2015 following the Sexual Assault & Relationship Violence Task Force, “aims to develop methods that form a better public health assessment system to inform the design and evaluation of prevention programs and policies,” according to its website. Kennedy said she has asked the institute to research if and how the work the University has been doing is actually making a difference in terms of education and prevention.

“They’re really looking at it from that idea that we need to know if anything is working, because if it’s not, we need to create something that does work,” Kennedy said. “We keep being told bystander intervention is the only thing that works. Well, is that true? And what are some of the programs other than that?”

The University will also hold additional training for faculty and staff to provide information about accommodations for students who have been affected by sexual violence. Kennedy said the University will add an online training for all faculty and staff, which it plans to roll out this semester. She also plans to hold an in-person training and a supplemental training for those who are supervisors of other employees.

Similarly, Kennedy held a supplemental training for residential advisers last month, answering mostly procedural questions they submitted ahead of time. She also plans to revamp the annual Title IX orientation trainings for RAs, which she plans to organize via her new subcommittee of the Health and Wellness Committee.

Further, Kennedy has met with the Women’s Panhellenic Association and hopes to meet with individual sororities to address concerns about sexual violence in the Greek community and explain the Title IX process and the work her office does.

“A couple of people mentioned that within their student groups, people have talked about organizations they believe were being investigated for multiple incidents of sexual assault,” she said, specifically citing information being spread throughout sororities. “I feel like that’s information that I needed to address and talk to them about—that what this thing that’s being [talked] about is not true. And if you all believe that that is actually something that could be true, then we need to talk about the fact that the University doesn’t have that information.”

She also hopes that introducing herself to members of Greek life in chapter meetings will help assuage fears or anxieties any students may have in approaching her.

“People within an organization can be talking about something, and they all think something’s being done about it. But if no one has actually shared it with the University then nothing is being done about it,” she added. “I do think it’s important for me to stand in front of people and say, ‘this is what we need your help [on]’…I don’t want people to think that the University is hiding something from them or that there’s been some cover-up, which there has not been.”

While Kennedy admitted it will be difficult to determine how successful these efforts will be, she expects to see an increase in the number of cases reported if the University is successful in clarifying the role of the Title IX office. She also hopes that an upcoming campus climate survey will help gauge how much the University’s education and awareness efforts have succeeded.

“At some point, I do hope that we’ll be as well-known as other groups on campus,” she said. “I think it’s important for us to know what people are concerned about—for us to be visible—and we’re working to establish more trust with our student body. So, making ourselves available like this is important.”

While the three listening sessions will likely be the only ones for this semester, Kennedy said she expects more to be held in future years, albeit not on as regular basis as this semester.