Students draft petition in response to data on campus sexual assault

| Senior Editor

Students presented a petition with nearly 1,000 signatures calling for the expansion of sexual assault prevention and support resources on campus to administrators as part of a continuing response to the campus’ sexual assault survey data released last month.

According to the survey, 30.7 percent of female undergraduate students, 10 percent of male undergrads and 53.3 percent of transgender, genderqueer or nonconforming and questioning undergrads have experienced sexual contact involving physical force, incapacitation, coercion or absence of affirmed consent.

The petition consists of eight demands, ranging from diversifying the staff who deal with issues of sexual assault to mandating bystander intervention training for student leaders to increasing transparency by the administration.

Seniors Fabian Barch and Karisa Tavassoli wrote the petition after consulting with other students to brainstorm a set of demands. They said they weren’t surprised by the survey’s results, but the high prevalence rates of sexual assault on campus spurred them to action.

“It was just really sad to see how many students out there really feel entirely alone after they’ve been sexually assaulted,” Barch said.

Upon sharing the petition with University administrators, Barch and Tavassoli were invited to speak at Monday’s inaugural meeting of the school’s implementation committee, which formed in September to address a task force report from last spring that also made several recommendations to reduce sexual assault and relationship violence on campus. The administration has yet to reach a consensus on which of the task force’s recommendations to enact, but this new committee will help it prioritize, Dean of Students Justin Carroll said.

Vice Provost Adrienne Davis, who is leading the implementation committee, said she was glad to see students adding their perspective to the conversation.

“I’m always learning from students,” she said. “I’m excited to see their passion and enthusiasm.”

Tavassoli and Barch said they were similarly excited to present to the committee and push for reforms to make campus a safe environment for everyone. Many of their petition’s demands align with the task force’s recommendations, although the two student authors didn’t consult that report when drafting their petition.

One area that overlaps both the petition and task force involves increasing resources and visibility for the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) Center. The petition’s first demand outlines a plan to hire more diverse staffers for the RSVP Center: One who specializes in working with people of color, one who works with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, one who speaks Chinese and one who works with Greek life and athletics.

“There are barriers by only having white American people in the RSVP Center,” Tavassoli said. “That isn’t creating the kind of supportive community which we want to see, as far as resources with as few barriers as possible.”

The petition also asks for the RSVP Center to be moved from its current location, on the fourth floor of Seigle Hall, to a more centralized spot on campus; for the University to provide full funds for The Date, a skit-and-discussion program for freshmen during orientation week that addresses issues of sexual assault; and for the RSVP Center’s support systems to be made available to all University College and graduate students.

Another of the proposals—mandating at least one hour of education for all student group presidents—is already being partially addressed through an independent effort from Student Union.

In response to the survey results, SU launched its Intervene initiative with the goal of training one-fourth of Washington University undergraduates in bystander intervention techniques. As of Wednesday, more than 70 student groups and 300 individual students have signed up for the training.

For Tavassoli, training all student group presidents is necessary because sexual harassment and violence happens within student groups.

“That isn’t something that’s really talked about or addressed at a public level,” Tavassoli said, but if an incident happens within a group, “how do you address and support those people? As leaders on this campus, we should know how to intervene, who to support, how to prevent.”

The final demand—semesterly updates from the University—is one of the most important, Tavassoli said, because students want to see that the administration is taking concrete steps to meet the demands.

“I sometimes get weary of creating new work groups or task forces just because it seems to be a tactic that the administration uses to slow down progress,” she said.

But the two petition authors expressed a hope that a persistent, student-led effort would convince the administration instead to accelerate its progress.

“I feel like Wash. U. has a big culture of pop activism where issues catch on very quickly and die out just as quickly,” Barch said, referring specifically to last year’s Black Lives Matter protests and this semester’s Planned Parenthood protests. “I just hope this petition doesn’t die, because the issues of sexual assault don’t die just because people lost interest, and survivors won’t need any less support just because people don’t have the attention span for activism.”

“Instead of being satisfied with being on par with peer institutions, this is an issue where Wash. U. has the opportunity and the ability to take the forefront of survivor support on campus,” Barch added.

With additional reporting by Keona Kalu.

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