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Wine bar on 2200 Penn opens doors
By Ella Mitchell, Contributing News Editor • June 14, 2024

After release of sexual violence survey, official calls for more prevention training

Lydia Francis | Hatchet Photographer
Lydia Francis | Hatchet Photographer

GW will expand sexual violence training for all parts of the community, honing in on specific groups like Greek chapters and upperclass women, the University’s top sexual violence prevention official said.

The decision comes after anonymous survey results released last week detailed the campus climate around sexual violence – which Title IX Coordinator Rory Muhammad said will serve as a guide to build up GW’s resources and make information easier to access. Muhammad, who came to campus in November and leads the University’s sexual violence response, said educational programming about sexual violence “should be furthered.”

He said he wants to add extra training on sexual violence prevention and resources for “high-risk” groups identified in the survey: female upperclassmen and LGBT students. He also wants to create online trainings for all students that could focus on healthy relationships or consensual sexual behavior.

“Sometimes it’s a slow turn,” Muhammad said. “It’s a cultural change where you’re trying to establish an environment of trust and not only trust but an environment where individuals feel there’s a genuine concern.”

Muhammad said he’d like to institute annual surveys of campus. He would also like to expand his office to include one staff member focused on investigations and another focused on creating trainings, though he doesn’t know whether there’s enough leeway in his budget.

Publishing a campus climate survey – which has also been done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – was a goal touted by the White House last spring as a benchmark all schools should meet as they improve their handling of sexual violence.

While advocates said having the information on file can be helpful, they also said the survey may not go far enough to assess what’s really happening on campus because it didn’t ask specific questions about sexual abuse or rape.

Still, the survey is an important step in the right direction, said Colby Bruno, the senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston.

“Out of everything that came out, there’s nothing bad,” Bruno said. “It’s all good information. Some of the stuff they have to work on, but you can’t get started on the problem until you understand the problem.”

Missing the target
But Bruno said Muhammad’s approach may not impact the right groups because it is directed at survivors – and not those who carry out the actions.

“I’m not saying training the victims would be useless. Obviously knowing who and how to report is important,” Bruno said. “But you’re looking at changing the culture, and the only way you’re changing the culture is figuring out a way to stop it. You want to know who is perpetrating these behaviors and what their misconceptions are, then cut it off.”

Eighteen percent of undergraduate students in the survey said they had perpetrated unwanted sexual behaviors like making inappropriate comments or sending unwanted sexual pictures.

And about one third of the undergraduate students who reported unwanted behavior said the University’s response was inadequate. That’s a red flag that points to staff and faculty potentially needing more training in their response, said Bridgette Harwood, the executive director of the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C.

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“It doesn’t matter if you’re trained until someone is blue in the face. If you don’t trust that the people who are responsible will carry [reports] out well, then you might not go through that process,” Harwood said.

Harwood said in addition to arming students with more information about their options, officials need to understand that sexual assault will still exist on campus. For that reason, she said GW’s response can’t focus solely on prevention strategies like bystander intervention, which teaches people how to stop a potential assault from occurring.

“Bystander intervention is a huge tool and those numbers going down could reflect people being willing to intervene,” she said. “But in a lot of sexual assaults, there’s no opportunity for a bystander. Victims can’t prevent being raped. A focus on making numbers going away is not realistic.”

Spreading the word
Several experts cast doubt on the idea of using online trainings to prevent sexual violence because students can coast through presentations. Training must also include in-person sessions and printed flyers or pamphlets to make sure students pay attention, experts said.

Nearly a quarter of undergraduate students who responded to the survey said they had experienced unwanted sexual behavior during their time at GW. Thirty-six percent of female upperclassmen said they had experienced it. The survey defined unwanted sexual behavior as sexual harassment, sexual violence, dating and domestic violence, and stalking.

Muhammad said he wants to create a one-page guide for how to report sexual violence and which resources serve as confidential outlets. Faculty have already called for a guide or flowchart to help them understand their role.

About 80 percent of students said they do not know how to contact a Title IX coordinator or the Sexual Assault Response Consultative team, a group of staff members trained to provide information to survivors.

But Harwood said if a school doesn’t already have a one-page guide that also lists off-campus resources, “then they’re falling short.”

“The one-pager is like, ‘No, duh,’ and should exist,” Harwood said.

GW does not currently have any mandatory sexual violence training for students, though some groups – like fraternities – have participated in bystander intervention trainings. Muhammad said he does not know if he would make trainings mandatory.

Charles Garris, the chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee and an engineering professor, called the results of the survey “really quite shocking.” Garris helped review the University’s sexual assault policies two years ago, alongside other Faculty Senate members.

“I do think they definitely need to do more outreach that’s for sure. It clearly showed that a lot of students weren’t aware of the resources that we have,” Garris said.

A focus on the LGBT community
Muhammad said training for undergraduate LGBT students, 35 percent of whom said they’d experienced unwanted sexual behavior at GW, could be coordinated through existing student groups like Allied in Pride.

“It’s tapping into the programs they already do and then carving out a place and saying, ‘Can you give us some time to share these resources?’” Muhammad said.

Administrators have previously tried to tailor sexual violence prevention trainings to certain groups, like athletes.

Media Credit: Lydia Francis | Hatchet Photographer
Title IX Coordinator Rory Muhammad, the University’s top sexual violence prevention official, said he hopes to create more training sessions to educate students and faculty. Muhammad joined GW in November.

Rob Todaro, the president of Allied in Pride, said the group plans to have a training session about sexual assault prevention this spring. Nicole Cakir, the campus outreach chair for the Alliance of Queer Women and Allies, said though the group has not yet spoken to Muhammad about collaborating for a training, they’d “strongly consider” joining forces.

About a quarter of undergraduate LGBT students in the survey said the University is “not effective in creating a climate free from unwanted behavior.” A total of 90 LGBT students participated in the survey, with three identifying as transgender.

Marybeth Seitz-Brown, a member of the national advocacy group Students Active for Ending Rape, said training for LGBT students should be specifically catered to the unique situations they may encounter, and should draw on the experiences of LGBT students on campus.

“Because so much consent education is based on a straight couple, as opposed to a trans woman and trans guy or a trans woman and a woman, there’s an issue with not having specificity with that culture,” Seitz-Brown said.

Does it go far enough?
But six experts said the survey, which never specifically mentions sexual assault or rape, may not give officials the full picture of what’s happening on campus.

Sarah Edwards, an assistant counseling professor at the University of North Dakota who recently released a study about sexual violence, said more questions about rape or sexual assault are needed to “zoom in” on what’s happening on campus.

“I’m sure someone would make the argument that forced sexual behavior was the all-encompassing, but it’s really broad,” Edwards said. “If you ask so broadly, you can only really speculate.”

Twenty-three sexual abuses, which can include sexual acts or sexual contact directly or through clothing, were reported to campus police last semester. That was the highest total reported in a semester in the last four years.

David Lisak, a forensic consultant who has conducted the leading research on rapists’ behavior, said he had “no idea” why officials left off questions about sexual abuse or forcible sex offenses. GW is already required to report those incidents in daily crime logs and to the Department of Education.

“Why did they stop at these behaviors and not survey the full spectrum?” Lisak said. “It doesn’t go beyond.”

Mary Ellen McIntire and Ellie Smith contributed reporting.

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