Staff Editorial: Capitalizing on sexual assault survey’s well-intentioned first step

If there’s one time to fish a GW email out of your trash folder, it’s now.

You might have received an email last week from Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed. It contained a link to a survey the University will use to gauge students’ experiences with sexual violence. They’ll use the results to shape new programs and resources for sexual assault survivors on campus.

On its face, the survey sounds like a good idea: It’s a way to gather information about a serious campus issue from a wider swath of student voices, instead of just passionate activist groups like Students Against Sexual Assault.

But the University must use these results to enact real change. This survey should be the first step in a longer, more expansive process – not a well-intentioned missed opportunity.

For instance, GW is in the process of hiring a Title IX coordinator – the top administrator who ensures GW complies with discrimination laws – to replace Tara Pereira. She oversaw the University’s prevention of and response to sexual violence on campus, and was widely respected as an advocate for survivors. The results from this survey can illuminate this administrator’s top priorities: Should the position be retooled? Should GW spread that workload over several administrators? Should GW create a single resource center for sexual violence issues?

Surveys like these help address sexual assault’s title as the “silent epidemic.” Federal studies show that about one in every five college-aged women experience an attempted or completed sexual assault, but 95 percent of attacks go unreported nationwide, according to the American Association of University Women.

Between 2008 and 2012, GW’s University Police Department recorded just 54 forcible sex offenses.

GW can’t possibly glean enough information from this small pool of survivors and other students to make substantive policy changes. There simply isn’t enough data from these cases. This study is a good way to get information from those members of the community who do not pursue formal reporting channels at the University.

Administrators must also embrace their responsibility to release this data publicly, and in context. Sexual assault information is vital to student safety, and administrators can’t obscure details. Students need to know the campus climate around sexual violence, and how GW can improve. A University spokesperson declined to comment on whether GW has plans to publicly release the survey’s results.

Going forward, the University should continue to seek student input on other controversial campus dialogues that leave out thousands of student voices.

For instance, administrators could use a series of questions about GW’s mental health climate as they shape services and bulk up University Counseling Center resources, especially now that the office will relocate to the heart of Foggy Bottom.

As we have seen in the past few months in the wake of four student deaths, the UCC has extended its hours in specific locations and plans to add permanent counseling on the Mount Vernon Campus. A survey can help the UCC better understand the campus culture and react to more subtle changes in students’ mental health needs, rather than look for quick fixes after abrupt tragedies.

As GW’s contract with its food service provider, Sodexo, expires in 2016, students should have a fair opportunity to weigh in on future dining options through a comprehensive survey. Dean searches, which currently involve only one or two students, could address broader student concerns by using college-wide surveys.

This model, if used across the board, can shape change while including student input at a University where it is easy to get lost in the crowd.

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