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Kinjo Kiema: GW needs a student-staffed survivor advocacy program

When former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg caused a media firestorm the other week, it didn’t seem at first like anything positive could come of it.

But I was happily surprised when students spoke out and proposed new ways to help survivors of sexual assault: Current and former members of Students Against Sexual Assault started a petition to raise $10,000 so GW can hire a full-time survivor advocate.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Kinjo Kiema

They want an administrator to join the University’s ranks who will act as guide for victims. But why not go bigger?

Sally Kaplan, alumna and the author of the petition, told me she thinks the most essential way to help survivors heal is “to enforce serious change in the way GW as an institution values the personal well-being of each of its students.” To build that kind of culture, the University needs not one or two advocates, but a whole team.

Ohio University has a well-developed, and completely student-staffed, survivor advocacy program. The school’s women’s center runs the program with the help of a grant from the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women. Staff assign an advocate to any sexual assault survivor who walks into the office or calls its hotline, which is available 24/7.

Each advocate has to complete an application process and take a four-credit-hour class to earn the position. The program’s coordinator, a licensed social worker with 24 years of experience, trains them in working with survivors of sexual violence.

These advocates are available to survivors for a whole host of services, including transportation to and from the hospital, if necessary, and support during the hospital exam. If survivors choose to report their assault to the police, advocates will accompany them throughout the reporting and interview process. Even if they don’t choose to report, advocates are still available at any time. And the best part is, all their services are completely free of charge thanks to the Justice Department’s funding.

GW currently doesn’t have a program of this kind. Students can contact the Sexual Assault Response Consultative Team, which is run out of the University Police Department. There are also the Title IX coordinators, who provide many services to survivors, including informal counseling and connections to resources.

But for a number of reasons, a survivor advocacy program staffed by students, like the model at OU, would be more effective.

The SARC team members are administrators from a variety of GW departments who are trained in sexual assault response. Though a hotline is also open 24 hours a day, calling it means you speak to an operator, who directs you to the team member on call – one of the 14 adults listed on SARC’s outdated website. Meanwhile, the Title IX coordinators are mostly University bigwigs: people with “provost” and “director” in their titles.

It’s problematic that the only people GW has staffing these programs are administrators, not college students. The vast majority of survivors already feel uncomfortable coming forward and seeking help: Only about 12 percent of college survivors will report their rape to law enforcement, according to the Medical University of South Carolina’s National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center.

William Arnold, a staff member of the Ohio University program, told me that one of the questions students most frequently ask him “is whether there is anybody ‘like them’ that they can talk to.”

It’s likely far less intimidating for a survivor to call in if he or she can speak to someone who sounds like a friend. And Arnold told me that in the rare instance an advocate and a survivor know each other, or for some reason a survivor doesn’t want to work with a particular advocate, the hotline is always double-staffed so they can easily switch to a backup.

A similar program at GW would also mean simply having more people to answer the phone. Every survivor of sexual assault could have an advocate to guide them through each step of the reporting and healing process, and that ability shouldn’t be limited by a lack of administrative manpower.

There’s always room for improvement when it comes to helping survivors of sexual violence, and a student-run program would act as a huge step toward an institutional culture of support.

Kinjo Kiema, a sophomore majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist.

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