Knapp promises in-person sexual assault education after student lobbying

Media Credit: Katie Causey | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Students carried matresses and marched to University President Steven Knapp's office in Rice Hall last Monday to demand mandatory in-person sexual violence prevention training at Colonial Inauguration. Carrying matresses has become a symbol nationwide for justice for sexual assault survivors.

Updated: April 20, 2015 at 5:41 p.m.

Freshmen will complete in-person sexual assault education during Welcome Week, a new requirement that University officials committed to this week after initially planning mandatory trainings to be offered only online.

The change follows a Friday meeting where University President Steven Knapp promised a room of leaders from Students Against Sexual Assault that a mandatory in-person training will take place during the first week of the academic year in addition to the online program. The commitment checks the box on one of the biggest student lobbying efforts of the past year, and quells student concerns that the online-only program would do little to improve students’ awareness of sexual violence issues.

The training will take place during what is commonly referred to as the “red zone” — a period of the first six weeks of the academic year when freshman are most at-risk of being sexually assaulted. The program will include 30-minute peer and staff led sessions at residence hall floor meetings, a mandatory online training module for all undergraduate and graduate students during the summer and a mandatory in-person session during the first week of school, according to a statement released by the University on Sunday morning.

Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed and Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski declined to respond to questions, and University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar referred questions to the recently published statement.

Csellar declined to comment on how the University would enforce attendance. In the next several months, the University “will continue to work with various campus partners to develop the programmatic content of our education and outreach, including outlining the best mechanisms for tracking participation,” the release from Reed and Konwerski reads.

“We are excited about the robust and rigorous enhancements to our already well-regarded efforts and commitment to prevent sexual assault in our community and are pleased that GW students continue to show interest in exploring every available option for preventing campus sexual assault,” the release reads.

Leaders from SASA and the Student Association have spent the last four months pushing for in-person sessions, meeting with top administrators and passing a referendum which asked for student approval of the mandatory meetings. They fired back at officials recently when they found out the current plan for the trainings would be only held online.

Four days before meeting with Knapp, members of SASA and about 30 other students marched to Rice Hall, carrying signs and a mattress to present a letter to Knapp’s chief of staff demanding the in-person trainings. The mattress echoes protests from across the country this year based on the “Carry That Weight” project at Columbia University, in which a student said she would carry her mattress with her everywhere until Columbia administrators expelled the student who she said raped her.

SASA Vice President Laura Zillman said placing the training during Welcome Week is a “surefire” way to make sure students actually attend.

“The decision came from students who want to make the future different for GW students. We will probably never meet the students who benefit from this change,” Zillman said. “It’s still important that we make that change now.”

She said SASA members and other student leaders will work with officials to plan education sessions led by peers and administrators.

She said peer education – a model already used by SASA in workshops they offer to different groups of students – will help students better relate to the points included in other aspects of the training.

“Peer education is shown to be the best model, because they can look up to this person and be like, ‘Oh, this person is just like me,’” Zillman said.

The University has increased its focus on sexual assault prevention over the past year as the issue has become a major concern on campuses across the country. GW filled the position of Title IX coordinator last semester after it was left vacant for nearly 10 months, and last month hired an assistant coordinator focused on student outreach and sexual assault prevention.

The commitment to host the sessions in person is the latest example of student lobbying prompting major changes in University policy. Last winter, officials announced student health and counseling services would be moved to the center of campus after students lobbied for more accessible resources. And in January, the University committed to creating a peer-support program, one of the student body president’s major platform points.

Campus climate survey results published by the University in February found that about 20 percent of female freshmen surveyed said they felt unsafe on campus at night and 80 percent of students said they did not know how to contact the Title IX office, which deals with student and faculty concerns about sexual harassment. Student leaders cited the results throughout the campaign for the personalized sessions.

In the SA election last month, 92 percent of students supported a referendum to require freshmen to complete sexual violence education training at Colonial Inauguration. SA President Nick Gumas also called for the training in a Board of Trustees meeting earlier this year.

Gumas said Knapp’s announcement is due to a combination of SASA’s “grassroots organizing” and a more formal process of administrators and students collaborating during productive trainings.

“As is often the case, these types of efforts go hand-in-hand and I’m very happy we could come to an agreement that works for everyone,” Gumas said.

GW will be the third of its 14 peer schools to require in-person sexual violence education. Georgetown University requires freshmen to participate in a program led by trained students. American University instituted stand-alone sexual assault education for freshmen earlier this month.

Gumas called GW’s decision “a win for everyone.”

“The University and the students both thought that this was a priority, and there were just differences in how we wanted to go forward on this issue,” Gumas said. “This is a really great example of students coming together to unite different parts of the University to accomplish one goal.”

SA Sen. Omeed Firouzi, U-at-Large, who has sponsored and promoted SA Senate bills that have called for increased sexual assault education, said training should take place throughout the year, beyond Welcome Week.

“In-person sessions can work if they are extended over a period of time and if they’re part of a broader comprehensive strategy and make sure that we let people know what bystanders can and should do,” Firouzi said. “We need to make sure that we let people know what bystanders can and should do.”

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