A lot of elements made this year’s Student Association election notable.
With 4,855 ballots cast, the election saw a record student voter turnout. Julia Susuni will be the fourth-ever female SA president in its nearly 40-year history. The two highest student lobbyists each won the race by a wide margin. And who could forget the satirical SA presidential bid by textile museum-loving monarchist “King” Hugo Scheckter?
But despite these factors, nothing is more pivotal about these past few weeks than the fact that the elected second-in-command placed sexual assault awareness as his capstone platform point.
In 2011, there were 16 reported sexual assaults on GW’s campus, up from 11 in 2010, according to Department of Education statistics. And that number is flawed: the vast majority of sexual assaults go unreported. Studies have found that nearly 20 percent of women who attend a college or university are victims of sexual assault.
Executive Vice President-elect Kostas Skordalos focused his candidacy on broadening sexual assault awareness and improving the University’s sexual assault policies. And considering Skordalos’s experience lobbying on behalf of victims of sexual assault throughout his GW career – he is co-president of the student organization Men of Strength – he clearly possesses the passion and credentials to follow through with his goals.
It is refreshing – and frankly, long overdue – to see this campus issue top a candidate’s platform.
But this past SA election shouldn’t be the only time we focus on sexual assault awareness.
Let 2013 be the first year of many to make sexual assault awareness a priority. Let this campaign serve as a message to the University that this issue requires student input. And let 2014 be the year candidates for both SA president and EVP to stop comparing student space plans and instead speak to how they will focus on heightening sexual assault awareness.
As visible leaders on campus, SA officials would be able to lobby and speak on behalf of the entire student body with regards to sexual assault issues. It would send a powerful message to the community if the chief student lobbyists made this their focus.
The University has been in the process of updating its sexual assault policy since it released an initial plan in the fall, which was troubling for a range of reasons. To start, the plan added a 180-day time window for students to file to take disciplinary action against their attackers. While the University is now working to extend the statute of limitations to one and a half years, Skordalos said he hopes to further extend this statute of limitations.
The University already offers quite a few resources for victims of sexual assault, including counseling and medical attention. However, simply raising awareness about those resources just isn’t enough. SA leaders should foster a community where victims feel comfortable reporting attacks and getting the help they need to heal.
The executive pair could also use SA finances and backing to create events that call attention to sexual assault on campus. Sexual assault awareness and justice groups should not be the only ones to give this cause visibility; it is a campus-wide issue that deserves more attention than it currently receives.
And given the SA’s resources and connections to administrators, it could likely accomplish more than any single student organization could handle on its own. We must expect leaders to constantly question our conventional wisdom about safety and sexual assault. Advocacy for this cause is not a one-time or short-lived act. If SA leaders are really ambitious, they should lobby the GW Hospital to finally get much-needed rape kits, which are only available in D.C. at the Washington Hospital Center.
Skordalos stressed that he wants to widen student understanding of the issue. This is admirable, and this is crucial. But this is a task that requires years of focus and effort from SA leaders.
And as for the student space plans that might get scrapped in place of this cause? Well, I think Skordalos answered it best during his endorsement hearing with The Hatchet’s editorial board.
“If it’s affecting one person in this community, it’s affecting the entire community,” he said. “And if a goal of ours is building community, as I believe it is for GW – strengthening our community – we have to make sure people feel safe here.”
And that thought should rake in votes every year.
Annu Subramanian, a senior majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet senior columnist.