Robin Jones Kerr: To underscore zero-tolerance policy, Knapp must condemn sexual assault on campus

The federal government is investigating 76 colleges and universities for allegedly mishandling sexual assault cases on their campuses.

Every day, I think about what will happen if – or when – GW joins that list. In the meantime, I’m reluctant to feel proud of our exclusion from it.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Robin Jones Kerr

That’s because I continue to feel unsafe on our campus. I know all too well that there’s an epidemic of campus rape in this country, and GW is infected just like any other school.

But I’ll admit – that’s my cynicism talking. When I sat down to look at GW’s progress in combating sexual assault, I was pleasantly surprised at how well our University is doing. I say pleasantly surprised because, lest we forget, this is the school that once thought it was a good idea to place an abhorrent time limit on when a survivor could file charges against his or her attacker to ensure, as one official said, “memories haven’t faded.”

In late April, a White House task force released a list of recommendations for universities to address sexual assault on their campuses. Turns out, GW has followed almost every recommendation, including conducting campus climate surveys, engaging men in bystander intervention training, increasing transparency about sexual assault policies and allowing survivors to report their cases confidentially.

On paper, GW is checking off almost every box the White House has made.

But I’m not quite ready to throw on a Colonials shirt and declare my GW pride, either. That’s because I have no assurance that GW – the University, the institution, the administration – has any real commitment to ending sexual assault on our campus.

And that’s because no one has said so.

Coupled with the impressive progress GW has made in meeting the task force’s recommendations, I think I would feel safer as a student here if a top administrator publicly denounced sexual assault and declared our school’s commitment to eradicating the crime.

Talking about an issue not only puts it in the spotlight, but it does the essential work of acknowledging that it’s a problem in the first place. When President Barack Obama announced the creation of the task force, it was a landmark moment celebrated by advocates in the fight against campus rape because it meant that the issue would no longer be swept under the rug in this country.

For someone like University President Steven Knapp to make a similar move would reassure GW’s student body that sexual assault will never, ever be tolerated here. Yes, administrators are already working to combat the problem, but for the most part, policy changes are flying under the radar.

It’s time for Knapp to take a step in the right direction, especially as we kick off the new school year, a time when, statistically, incidents of sexual assault are at their highest. Communicate to freshmen that GW is a safe place for them, and reassure older students that their safety is a priority.

When the White House set its benchmarks, Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed said in a statement: “This is something we really care about. We are committed to working as a community to protect students from sexual assault.” That’s nice to hear, but not only are her words relatively weak – and shuffled out in some generic press release instead of spoken at a public event – they’re also not coming from someone with much visibility.

There’s precedent for a university president to do something like this. In June, Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California, announced the creation of a task force to oversee sexual violence prevention efforts throughout the UC system. She said in a statement, “Sexual violence is a serious crime that we will never tolerate. We aim to be the national leader in combating sexual violence on campus.”

Now, the UC system is massive with more than 233,000 students on all ten of its campuses, so it makes sense for it to have a task force to coordinate efforts. That solution might not exactly fit one medium-sized university like our own. But Napolitano’s strong words and open acknowledgement of the problem resonate.

It wouldn’t just be lip service for Knapp, either, because we know his words are powerful. When he came to the University in 2007, he brought a passion for academics after serving as a professor for 16 years and a provost for 10. He then made academics a top priority when GW crafted the 10-year strategic plan.

It’s not enough for GW to stay off the list of schools under investigation for Title IX violations. Just because we’re not technically in hot water yet, just because there hasn’t been a national headline-making scandal at GW, doesn’t mean we’re doing enough.

Our policy improvements are great and, honestly, I’m pleasantly surprised by them. But until I hear a strong condemnation of campus rape from our University president, I won’t be proud to be a Colonial and I won’t feel any safer on our campus.

Robin Jones Kerr, a senior majoring in journalism, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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