Top University leaders joined advocates and survivors at the White House last week to commit to a nationwide sexual assault prevention campaign.
GW pledged alongside hundreds of other colleges to increase bystander intervention training, incorporate sexual assault-related information into athletic events and strengthen on-campus support for survivors.
University President Steven Knapp, who attended the two-hour launch Friday, said the campaign’s focus on drawing men into conversations about assault may be the most effective way to make an impact.
“You can’t change a culture unless you change the people that constitute that culture,” he said in an interview after the event. “If you just focus on survivors, you’re not getting to the heart of it, which is what is the thinking behind the way this practice has unfolded.”
Men of Strength, a student group on campus that focused on bringing men into conversations about sexual assault, disbanded this fall after drops in membership.
The White House will also release sample policies to strengthen the role of Title IX coordinators, increase support for victims and define prohibited conduct in sexual misconduct policies.
Other schools that have signed on to the campaign – which comes about five months after a White House group released recommendations to improve school’s handling of sexual assault – include Georgetown, George Mason, Johns Hopkins and Columbia universities.
Student Association President Nick Gumas, who also attended the campaign launch, said he met with administrators and other student leaders this month to discuss ways to prioritize sexual assault prevention on campus. He said he hopes to implement mandatory sexual assault prevention training, instead of relying on optional sessions at Colonial Inauguration.
“This is not something where we’re dragging their feet into the conversation,” Gumas said. “Everyone is coming to the table and acknowledges something needs to be done.”
Students Against Sexual Assault will also work with Gumas and the SA to create informational videos featuring students, staff and faculty about consent and bystander intervention, said Kirsten Dimovitz, SASA’s co-president.
The University will back student leaders’ ideas on improving education about assault on campus, said Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed, who oversees the University’s sexual assault response and compliance with the federal anti-discrimination law Title IX.
“To successfully and meaningfully enhance our prevention and response efforts, every voice, idea, suggestion and recommendation must be included in the conversation,” Reed said.
Bridgette Harwood, the co-executive director of and director of legal services at the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C., said the campaign will only be successful if schools buy into the ideas, though “if nothing else, this campaign has people talking.”
“How are the institutions, in particular the ones we know need it, going to buy into it?” Harwood said. “I think you [may see] that reaction of ‘Well, this campaign is a political issue – do they really care or are they just there to make a statement?’ It gets to a partisan debate.”
Under the umbrella of the NCAA, GW athletes have also signed the “It’s On Us” pledge, vowing to help prevent assault. The athletics department released a promotional video Friday featuring six athletes, who talked about GW’s sexual assault resources on camera.
That video could also play on jumbotrons at sports events this year as part of the NCAA’s commitment to the campaign.
Athletics director Patrick Nero, who attended the event, said GW athletes had come forward asking to participate in the campaign.
“As an athletic department, we’ve always said we want to really reflect how the general student body operates on campus,” Nero said in an interview Saturday. “It is something that we feel is very important to being an athletic department that represents GW – that we should be aware and we should take the lead on social issues, especially when they’re being involved around sports.”
GW athletes learn about sexual assault in department-led trainings each year. In 2012, Nero also mandated sexual assault prevention training for his about 75-member staff. The athletic department was also one of the first to publicly support the “You Can Play” campaign in 2012 and teamed up with the Global Women’s Institute last year to make a public service announcement on domestic violence.
The NCAA will also hold a half-day training session about sexual assault at its national conference this winter.
Each school can create its own programs for sexual assault education as part of the campaign, which received national attention as Obama and Biden both spoke out against assault at the event.
Obama said sexual assault is an issue schools can’t “turn away” from, and said the more than 70 schools under investigation for their handling of assault cases demonstrate administrators “dropping the ball.”
“Students work hard to get into college,” Obama said. “When they finally make it onto campus, only to be assaulted, that’s not just a nightmare for them and their families. It’s not just an affront to everything they’ve worked so hard to achieve – it is an affront to our basic humanity.”
A promotional video for the campaign released at the event included actors and public figures like Kerry Washington and Jon Hamm. Lorraine Voles, vice president of external relations, and former Board of Trustees Chairman Russ Ramsey also attended the campaign kickoff at the White House.
Colby Bruno, the senior legal counsel at the Victims Rights Law Center, said the initiative shows the White House is taking an “activist approach” to handling sexual assault across the country, meeting with university presidents and student leaders to help inform their policies.
“What we hope is that you don’t just get college campuses to respond, but you get a social movement that consists of all of society to really work toward eradicating it,” she said.
Sean Hurd, Nora Princiotti and Allison Kowalski contributed reporting.