Sarah Blugis: Faculty should take it upon themselves to learn GW’s sexual assault policies

At the beginning of each semester, it seems like professors spend a fair amount of time scolding us. Maybe we didn’t read the syllabus correctly, neglected to buy our books on time or overslept because our internal clocks haven’t yet adjusted from winter break to school.

That’s because on the surface level, our professors are here to keep us in line. But during our time at GW, they do so much more. It’s a two-way street: We work hard, respect their time and value their knowledge, while they facilitate our education and help us when we ask. Recently, though, it’s become clear that some of our professors aren’t holding up their end of the bargain.

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Sarah Blugis

Three top faculty members recently said they were unaware they had a legal obligation to report sexual assault allegations made by students. These professors, members of the Faculty Senate, expressed concerns that their colleagues also might be unsure about what to do.

It’s very scary and completely unacceptable that some professors don’t know where to direct students who confide in them about sexual assault or, if they are leaders in their departments, that they should tell their students they are mandatory reporters.

This lack of information isn’t the University’s fault. Faculty already receive emails about sexual assault resources, and GW’s 20-page sexual harassment policy outlines a professor’s role in responding to assaults. There is no excuse for professors to lose those emails or neglect to read a 20-page policy.

It wouldn’t be acceptable for students to disregard a professor’s email, or avoid doing the hundreds of pages of reading we’re assigned to complete each week – and that’s just about getting a good grade. When professors avoid their responsibilities, they are putting students in real danger.

Some would argue that by entering academia, professors didn’t sign up for such a burden. But if they don’t genuinely care about the health, safety and well-being of their students, then why are they here?

It’s impossible for our professors to be ignorant of the climate surrounding sexual assault both nationally and at GW. They’ve seen their students work hard to combat the problem, they heard former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s remarks in the fall and – as people who work in the nation’s capital – they are likely aware of the White House’s “It’s on Us” campaign.

Online resources give professors this advice: Find out what your school’s policy is, and remember there likely are rape survivors in your classroom.

If members of the Faculty Senate thought professors needed more guidance from GW, they should have pushed for it: better training, flowcharts, pamphlets – whatever they considered necessary. A small committee of students and faculty has just proposed some of these ideas, and that’s a good start. So far, though, professors have blamed the University for its complex, confusing sexual assault procedures without actually demanding better resources.

For many students, faculty become their mentors, advisers and friends. We aren’t children, but we certainly depend on them to help us if they can – especially since many professors enjoy talking with students and getting to know them. Almost every professor I’ve had at GW has encouraged students to just drop in to say hello during office hours even if we don’t have anything class-related to discuss.

That makes professors available to students who don’t know where else to turn. Of course, when a survivor discloses his or her experience, it can be uncomfortable and upsetting – particularly if professors don’t know how to respond. For that very reason, faculty should jump at any opportunity to learn how to better talk to students. This scenario would be less intimidating if professors were prepared.

It’s clear they care about our academics. Last spring, the Faculty Senate pushed for a new plan to improve the University’s graduation rate by warning students earlier when they’re doing poorly in a class. They should care just as much about how we’re doing outside the classroom.

As the primary authority figures with whom we come in contact on a daily basis, faculty members need to take their responsibilities – especially when it comes to sexual assault – just as seriously as they expect us to take ours. “I didn’t know there was a test today” isn’t an excuse for failing. So that means “I didn’t know what to tell my student about sexual assault” isn’t an excuse, either.

Sarah Blugis, a junior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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