The University is looking to the Greek community to lead a campus-wide conversation about sexual violence after a report of a sexual assault in a Greek townhouse united student leaders.
Top administrators say it is the persistent voices of influential students, like leaders in Greek life, that will turn the issue into a broader campus dialogue. That comes after GW has already tried to drive conversations about sexual assault by conducting a campus climate survey, appointing officials to lead outreach and launching a website listing available resources.
“If students wanted to come together around this topic, they could, and they could change the culture, change the wave if they wanted to,” Center for Student Engagement Director Tim Miller said. “Students have a chance to make this a University issue – it’s up to them to do it.”
Last week, Greek leaders met with GW’s top safety official, campus police chief and victim services coordinator to discuss student concerns about sexual assault and GW’s response to former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s controversial comments about alcohol and sexual assault.
The presidents of Greek life’s three largest umbrella organizations sent a letter to their members – more than 2,500 students – days later, calling sexual assault “reprehensible” and a crime the community would not tolerate.
“We believe fraternities and sororities, through leadership, membership education, and brotherhood/sisterhood, can serve an important role in preventing sexual assault, and educating others on how to do so, as well,” the letter read.
The issue has come into focus after a sexual assault was reported at the Phi Sigma Kappa townhouse two weeks ago, which is at least the fifth report of a sexual abuse in a Greek townhouse over the last two years.
Kasey Packer, the president of the Panhellenic Association, said releasing a statement about sexual assault – listing campus resources as well – gave Greek leaders a chance to “set a precedent that sexual assault is not tolerated at GW.”
“This is one of the first solid cases in a while that’s tied to a fraternity, and we want to make sure everyone in the community knows we are aware of what’s going on and want to be proactive,” Packer said. “I think you have to spin these incidents into a positive sense that we can get the word out and that if you are a victim, there’s a way to get help.”
Packer said she will also explore more education options for the Greek community, like working with the Student Association to make an informational video about sexual assault and University policies.
Eric Estroff, the president of Sigma Chi, said though members of Greek life are neither “the cause nor the answer to sexual assault culture on this campus or any campus,” the community – which makes up 30 percent of the student body – can still take steps to improve it.
“We can definitely play a huge role in the conversation,” he said. “We’re organizations that have huge structures behind us, like programming chairs and funds to put toward events. In that sense, we are able to guide and enable the conversation to start happening here.”
Sigma Chi, which is one of the largest fraternities on campus with more than 80 members, will host a sexual assault prevention training session this year that Estroff hopes to open to other student groups and chapters. Alumni who received training from the national organization this summer would lead the session.
It would be the first Greek-wide sexual assault prevention program led by a fraternity in recent history, he said.
“Especially after the conversations that are happening on campus, we want to expand to as many people on campus. We’re one of the largest fraternities in the country and have a lot of support form our national organization – not all chapters have that,” Estroff said.
The training would focus on consent, bystander intervention and how to prevent assault in the chapter, said Michael Church, the national organization’s executive director.
GW’s sexual assault prevention programs in Greek life are a patchwork of efforts: There is no University-wide mandate requiring chapters to complete sexual assault prevention programs, though many chapters follow rules their national organizations have put in place.
Last year, at least three chapters completed bystander intervention training, which teaches how to step in and stop an assault. The Interfraternity Council also teamed up with Students Against Sexual Assault last spring to participate in a march, which was part of SASA’s Take Back the Night event.
Miller said several other Greek chapters have also planned to start up sexual assault prevention trainings.
But, he said he sees a difference between giving students information and presenting it in a helpful way.
“You can’t just [say], ‘Do this, don’t do this,’” Miller said. “There’s not a loss of what can be done, the question is which do you pick, and how do you deliver it?”
Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski, who has spent more than two decades at GW, said he has noticed more discussions about sexual assault on campus – especially as the issue has become a national focus.
“How do we keep reinforcing that? And how do we as administrators recognize that and say fraternity men can take a position on this, athletes can take an issue on this, residence hall students can take an issue on this?” Konwerski said.
He said the most successful efforts he’s seen at GW, like the recent campaign on mental health that follows three on-campus suicides, have started with conversations that cut across groups.
Konwerski added that administrators are looking at ways to bring sexual assault prevention training to upperclassmen and graduate students, instead of leaving the major focus on freshmen during orientation.
“I think it could help where more people are talking about it, not just Students Against Sexual Assault. It’s hard to be the only group talking about it. More students are talking about it, and I’m proud to see lots of students engaging in conversation,” Konwerski said.
The Greek community’s statement condemning assault will help open up “safe spaces” for survivors, said Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, who helped start the advocacy group End Rape on Campus.
“It [shows survivors] that in the Greek community they will be cared for. But, looking at the bigger picture it means that as a community they’re able to say ‘We have a problem, this happened here, within our community, and we need to deal with it. You can’t close your eyes,” Ridolfi-Starr said.