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Students, alumni call on Trachtenberg to back campus sexual assault resources

Samuel Klein | Senior Photo Editor
Samuel Klein | Senior Photo Editor

Student leaders have launched a campaign calling for former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg to contribute seed funding for another sexual assault advocate on campus.

Sally Kaplan, an alumna, and her partner, graduate student Jen Gushue, along with Students Against Sexual Assault are spearheading a campaign to provide more resources for survivors. Their efforts come after Trachtenberg drew fire for saying women need to be “trained not to drink in excess” to avoid falling victim to sexual assault.

They hope to raise $5,000 and land a matching contribution from Trachtenberg, allowing GW to hire a second full-time sexual assault advocate. This official would stand by survivors through every step of the reporting process, from talking victims through their options for medical treatment to explaining how they can take a perpetrator to court.

“We said to each other, whatever effort we put forward together, we need to ask for institutional change,” said Kaplan, a 2013 graduate who crafted the proposal with SASA co-president Ariella Neckritz. “We need to ask for the University to commit to prevention and intervention and to commit to taking action to support survivors of sexual assault.”

The University’s victims’ services coordinator, Suzanne Combs, now serves as an advocate for students.

Kaplan and Gushue’s petition has gathered nearly 800 signatures, and they have raised $485 through crowd funding. But Trachtenberg said he doesn’t plan to donate.

Trachtenberg told the Hatchet in an email that he will continue to make donations to the University. He said many of his gifts go to the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration and the school’s director, Kathy Newcomer.

“She can use my next contribution for this issue if she wishes,” he said.

One of GW’s Title IX deputy coordinator positions has sat vacant for nearly nine months, and Combs, higher education consultant Ann Franke and several administrators have worked to fill the gap.

Kaplan, who survived a sexual assault at another school before she transferred to GW, said the petition’s creators believe the University needs another hire during the transition. And the storm of criticism surrounding the president emeritus, she said, has made sexual assault prevention more salient on campus.

“Trachtenberg’s comments have kind of snowballed into a larger issue,” she said.

Letters to the former president
University President Steven Knapp highlighted the resources GW offers victims in a statement Friday.

The message came three days after dozens of students, faculty and alumni took to social media to voice their outrage over Trachtenberg’s comments. During a panel discussion on the Diane Rehm show, Trachtenberg said women should be careful “not to drink in excess.”

“They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave,” he said. “And so part of the problem is you have men who take advantage of women who drink too much and there are women who drink too much. And we need to educate our daughters and our children in that regard.”

Trachtenberg said in an interview that he thought his comments were taken “out of context.”

“I don’t believe that because a woman drinks, that shifts responsibility from a predator to her,” he said in an interview. “You need to educate the men but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to arm your women with the ability to defend themselves.”

Newcomer, the Trachtenberg school’s director, told students in an email that the school did not support its namesake’s statements.

“We regret that these remarks have brought our name into the news in this particular way at the start of a new school year,” she wrote. “Let’s not let this incident distract us from our mission of working to inform public policy and contribute to the quality of democratic governance.”

Students in the school wrote an open letter to Trachtenberg, asking him to clarify his remarks and reconsider his beliefs about sexual assault.

Alumna Sophia Jones also wrote an open letter, which was published in the Huffington Post. Jones, who graduated in 2013, wrote that a man broke into their GW residence hall room and attempted to assault her friend who was sleeping.

“If a man can sexually violate a woman while she’s safely asleep in her college dorm bed and have this question thrown at her, then how are we ever going to stomp out college rape?” she wrote. “But you, as a leader in the world of education, have an obligation to protect your students.”

Continuing the campaign
Laura Zillman, vice president of Students Against Sexual Assault, said Trachtenberg’s statements were “unacceptable.”

She said Peter Konwerski, the dean of student affairs, had reached out to her and the organization through Twitter. The group’s leaders hope to meet with Konwerski this week.

“I think the fact that we’ll have that conversation and begin that dialogues with him and hear what he says and respond to it, we can incorporate that into what our next step is,” she said.

Zillman said the organization was also reaching out to alumna Kerry Washington, the lead actress on ABC’s hit show Scandal who spoke at University-wide Commencement in 2012. The two-time Emmy Award nominee has emerged as an advocate for women’s rights.

Kaplan said the group hopes that Washington, who has served on the University’s Board of Trustees, would either make a statement or a donation to the cause that would push their requests to the top of the body’s agenda.

“I hope it catches fire,” she said about the campaign. “I hope we raise a million dollars and I hope the petition gets a million signatures. I really do hope that happens because then they really couldn’t ignore it anymore.”

Colleen Murphy contributed reporting.

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