Updated: June 9, 2015 at 11:08 a.m.
For incoming freshmen, Colonial Inauguration is just the starting point for discussions on serious topics on campus.
For the first time this year, officials have expanded training for freshmen during Colonial Inauguration from beyond information sessions taking place over the summer into the first week of school. Freshmen will learn about sexual assault prevention and how to adjust to college life in small groups, online presentations and in their residence halls.
The changes come after a more than year-long focus on sexual assault prevention on campus, and officials say the extra options for training and conversations will help staff reach students in more effective ways.
Instead of three large-group community meetings during CI, where leaders talk about adjusting to college, there will be 10 meetings this year, giving freshmen a chance to ask questions in smaller groups of about 50 students, Center for Student Engagement Director Tim Miller said. Miller said officials also moved residence hall tours to a different time during orientation to give students more time for a “healthy relationship and college lifestyle conversation.”
“What we’re doing is adding in a little more about ‘Here’s what life is going to be like in college’ that we haven’t done before and some of that can be everything from living with roommates to bystander intervention,” Miller said in an interview last month. “The biggest concept is explaining how the college life is different, that lifestyles here are different.”
Miller said resident advisers will also receive training to talk about consent and ways to prevent an assault. RAs will bring those concepts up again at roommate meetings during the first few weeks of the school year. He also said the training is based on similar programs at Emory, Georgetown, Cornell and Yale universities. Staff at those schools did not return a request for comment.
Miller said the change is “over and above” what officials had already been planning for sexual assault prevention education at CI. Freshmen will complete mandatory, in-person sexual assault prevention training during Welcome Week for the first time this year.
“Even before sexual assault came up as a topic, this was something we were talking about,” Miller said.
Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski said weaving conversations about sexual assault into more meetings instead of only discussing them at CI will help students better understand how the issue can play out over their college years.
“It brings it from the large to how is it going to affect your roommates, how is it going to affect your friend who you’re hanging out with the first weekend of school,” Konwerski said.
Spotlight on sexual assault prevention
While sexual assault education has been presented at CI in the past as part of an optional safety and security session, this year’s students will be able to attend a stand-alone sexual assault education session held by GW’s Title IX Office in addition to the mandatory training during Welcome Week.
“You’ll see more print materials. You’ll see more on the web. You’ll see more in conversation. You’ll see more in small group and big group [sessions],” Konwerski said. “There will be a heightened level of conversation about it, and then I think you’ll have it more organically by department.”
Ninety-two percent of students who voted in the Student Association elections in March were in favor of implementing mandatory in-person sexual assault trainings at orientation.
Originally, administrators planned to only host an online module, but faced pushback from students. University officials then announced in April that they would require in-person sexual assault education for all incoming students.
Konwerski said administrators formed the training after working with other schools, members of the Student Association and Students Against Sexual Assault.
“It’s finding out what other people are doing, going off the literature the White House and the Department of Education put out,” Konwerski said.
Kiera Bloore, an attorney at the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. said university leaders’ mantras should be “early and often” when it comes to sexual assault prevention training.
“You can’t address these issues in a thorough and effective way by doing one one-hour session during freshman orientation,” Bloore said.
She added that students should be given the opportunity to provide feedback after trainings to help tailor the programming to GW specifically.
“What resonates at GW or Georgetown is very different than what would with a Howard student,” Bloore said. “It’s not an excuse for it to take five years to get it right, but I’m sure it will take time to get the training right for GW, and it will also take time for students to take time to talk about these issues openly.”
Emphasis on training
To lead the effort, officials are turning to a new administrator specifically focused on training students.
Carrie Ross, assistant director of sexual assault prevention and response, was hired in March and is the first official brought in by GW to focus solely on training for students.
Title IX Coordinator Rory Muhammad, who leads the University’s response to sexual violence, said earlier this year that Ross would lead education efforts after officials pinpointed the need for more prevention education through the results of University campus climate survey.
In the survey, 80 percent of responding students said they did not know how to contact the University’s Title IX Office, which houses the administrators who walk students through the process of reporting sexual assault under the federal anti-discrimination law.
Ross said the sessions about sexual assault during CI will be more in-depth than in past years and members of the Colonial Cabinet received extra training to lead “debriefs” of those sessions for students who might have more questions.
In August, all incoming students will be required to take an online course, which Ross described as the “think about it” phase of education, which introduces topics within sexual violence including consent, Title IX rights and bystander intervention. At the end of the online course, Ross said students will be prompted to sign up for the mandatory in-person session during Welcome Week.
“By repeating messages and discussing real-life scenarios, we not only honor people’s individual learning styles but also make the information as personally relevant as we can,” she said in an email.
All resident advisers receive training about sexual assault policies and resources. Miller said a select group of RAs are receiving additional training from Ross so they can share the information with other RAs. He said that group would “serve as a bridge” between Ross and student leaders in residence halls.
Melora Sundt, a professor specializing in campus sexual assault and harassment at the University of Southern California, said training students to respond to sexual assault reports could change a campus’ culture around sexual assault because many students would rather tell a peer.
“Usually the first person that they talk to, the way that person reacts helps shape the way the victim is thinking about the incident,” Sundt said. “That doesn’t prevent assault, but it might make it more likely that when they do tell somebody, they’ll get better help more immediately.”
Colleen Murphy contributed reporting.
This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that officials based GW’s training on similar programs at Emory, Georgetown, Cornell and Yale universities. They based the RA initiative on those universities’ programs. We regret this error.