After two dozen sexual abuse reports, advocates laud campus culture shift

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Twenty-three sexual abuses were reported to the University Police Department last semester, the highest number reported to campus police in any semester over the last four years.

That number is also 53 percent higher than any semester since 2010. But officials and experts say a higher rate of reporting is a positive sign.

Sexual abuse can include sex acts or sexual contact either directly or through clothing. The issue of sexual violence on campus became a wider spread conversation last semester when GW created a prevention committee made up of administrators and students.

Suzanne Combs, the University’s victims’ services coordinator, said several offices organize presentations and discussion panels about preventing sexual violence.

“These sessions stress the importance of seeking assistance,” said Combs, who regularly meets with sexual assault survivors and guides them through the process of reporting the crime.

GW’s most prominent student organization that is focused on sexual assault prevention, Students Against Sexual Assault, has seen its membership more than double from 15 members two years ago – a fact members point to as a key indicator of a healthier campus climate of awareness. Still, GW’s only male-centered group, Men of Strength, disbanded this fall because of low membership.

Greek leaders also called for more awareness about the issue after a sexual assault was reported in the Phi Sigma Kappa townhouse in August.

Student Association President Nick Gumas said student groups on campus in particular have helped make sexual assault a more “salient” topic over the past two years. He said students now seem more aware of the issue.

“That is a positive step in the right direction,” he said.

GW reported the eighth-highest number of campus sexual offenses among private universities between 2010 and 2012, according to Department of Education data.

That’s in contrast to peer schools like Washington University in St. Louis, and Georgetown and Northwestern universities, which each had fewer than two abuses reported last semester, according to a Hatchet analysis of the schools’ crime logs.

Maya Weinstein, a sexual assault survivor and member of Students Against Sexual Assault, said though she has always felt safe on campus, it’s now “definitely more commonplace” for students to talk about sexual assault and ask questions.

“I think it’s a hot topic everywhere, and at GW, the more they talk about it, the more they realize it’s OK to report their experiences,” she said.

Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed, who oversees the University’s sexual assault response, said she can “only speculate” that national attention could increase reporting of sexual assault at GW.

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Twenty-three sexual abuses were reported on campus last semester, the highest since 2010, but advocates are proud of a campus culture in which students can report assaults.

“Ideally, this increase will ultimately lead to an increase in the number of individuals filing complaints, but we are not there yet,” Reed said. The University does not release the number of students who file complaints, or the outcomes of cases.

D.C. experts who work with colleges and support students who report an assault say they’ve noticed that more students are comfortable disclosing their experiences and administrators have become increasingly conscious of how to help.

Scott Berkowitz, the executive director of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, said more attention to the issue of campus sexual assault, which made it to the White House this fall, has led to “big changes at universities over the past year.”

“The attention and energy going to the issue tends to ebb and flow, but this has really changed the environment the past year or so. This wave isn’t over yet. It’s going to go for quite a bit longer,” he said.

Eight of last semester’s sexual abuses were reported in November, making up about 35 percent of the total number reported in the fall.

Reed said none of those instances were reported as formal complaints to the University, which means they did not lead to an investigation. One of the incidents was off campus, which officials referred to the Metropolitan Police Department.

“We hear from students that among the primary reasons they do not report, or go forward with a complaint, is that they do not want to talk about it or that they did not get hurt. The latter explanation is most often cited in cases that are less violent or verbal in nature,” Reed said in an email. She declined requests for an interview.

Survivors have the option to not file a report with the police, but all incidents reported to GW must be entered in its crime log under the Clery Act, a federal law that standardizes the process for colleges to report crime.

Bridgette Harwood, the executive director of the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C., said all schools have to focus on making sure their campuses are “safe spaces” for survivors.

“When you see campuses doing that and you see campus administrations open to improvement, that’s where you’re probably going to see students reporting to administration,” Harwood said.

Students Against Sexual Assault’s vice president, Laura Zillman, said though there’s always room to improve the response to sexual assault, she has seen “progress in helping ease those conversations” for survivors.

Zillman added that the Student Association’s planned peer-support hotline, where students would be able to discuss their stresses or seek advice, could also encourage students who “might feel more comfortable talking to a peer” to report an assault.

“It’s less important to increase the frequency of reporting, and focus more on increasing the comfort of survivors, so we can empower them to make decisions at their own pace,” Zillman said.

Colleen Murphy contributed reporting.

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