University failed in response to assault

Early Monday morning, one of our fellow students was raped on her way home from campus. A crime of this severity does not occur often within our seemingly secure Wash. U. bubble, making the University’s response all the more important.

However, Washington University delivered a seemingly rushed message that failed in its responsibilities. It is both troubling and disheartening that the University was unable to deliver a message that both communicated the serious dangers that were posed by the crime and that was sensitive to the survivor.

At 10:30 a.m., a University-wide crime alert and memo was e-mailed, informing the campus community of a sexual assault that occurred early that morning on Skinker Boulevard.

Our first concern with the alert was the use of the term ‘sexual assault.’ Broad in scope, sexual assault can refer to anything from inappropriate touching to sexual harassment to rape, which is specifically defined as forced penetration. After the announcement, many students questioned the nature of the crime and were unaware that their fellow student was raped.

While the University should not propagate fear, it is crucial that the campus know that a fellow community-member was raped. The community needs an accurate representation of the crime in order to take the appropriate safety precautions, and in circumstances like these, the University must work to ensure that the severity of the situation is reflected in the message it delivers. By deliberately choosing the term sexual assault, the University downplayed the dangers present in the areas around campus.

Was the University's emergency message acceptable?

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Furthermore, the University implied that the student could have prevented her attack by using the Campus2Home shuttle. The alert failed to mention that shuttle service did not cover the area south of campus where the survivor was raped; service to that area promptly began Monday night. The administration should have been tactful in the composition of its message in order to ensure that it did not inadvertently place any blame on the survivor. Although the University’s intentions were certainly not to suggest that the victim was partially at fault for this attack, by listing safety precautions in the e-mail with the crime alert, it suggested that the student could have prevented the rape, when it was the attacker and only the attacker who committed this crime.

While people should be aware of effective safety measures and the Campus2Home shuttle service, this was not the place to mention University services or general precautions.

From the campus-wide alert, it is clear that the response was delivered in haste and the University placed its image over delivering an incisive and accurate message. The Washington University administration used the campus-wide alert system as a vehicle for public relations, sidestepping its appropriate use: a message system that sensitively communicates the dire seriousness of the situation to the campus. The first alert to students should have been a crime alert. A subsequent notification could have informed students of security servies offered on and around campus while maintaing proper distance from the facts surrounding the crime.

WUPD, Student Health Services, the administration and the new assistant director for community health and sexual assault services, who is set to begin in June, are vital aspects to the prevention and management of such crimes, but they need to separate public relations and the dissemination of advice on crime prevention and support from distribution of the cold, hard facts. This will assure that the University is seen as empathetic to the victim and is working to prevent these attacks in the future.

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