Op-ed: OAS’s work is crucial – and should continue unhindered by budget cuts

Students Against Sexual Assault is an advocacy organization that aims to support members of the GW community with resources related to sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment and stalking.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated universities’ financial difficulties across the country. As a result, GW has implemented various cost-saving measures like salary cuts, spending restrictions and layoffs. Speaking to Know Your IX, we know national trends indicate that the Office of Advocacy and Support and similar offices in these cost-saving plans could be targeted. In light of this, along with the relatively recent creation of this office, Students Against Sexual Assault wants to affirm the importance and need for this irreplaceable office.

Every employee in OAS is needed now more than ever as our GW community experiences the intersection of sexual violence, racial injustice and a pandemic. In recent weeks, discourse regarding survivorship of sexual violence has become a central issue on our campus, highlighted in the creation of the @gwsurvivors Instagram account. This is not to say that it has not been an issue before, but rather that its pervasive presence across campus is only now coming publicly to light. Even before this community awakening, OAS has been present to support and advocate for survivors in our community, making their work invaluable without these extenuating circumstances. OAS has done the difficult and quiet work that is needed to ensure the safety and care of every member of our community.

As GW takes steps to become an anti-racist institution with the event series #GWInSolidarity, the work that OAS does is even more crucial. GW community members who belong to marginalized populations all experience violence, particularly sexual violence, in unique and disproportionate ways. Black, Indigenous, Latinx, nonbinary, transgender, femme and queer members of our community are at a higher risk of experiencing sexual violence statistically, which has only been heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Network for Victim Recovery of DC, the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the American Psychological Association. Although most students may not physically be on campus for the fall semester, many will still reside in the area and interact with their peers. The inevitable occurrence of sexual violence involving members of the GW community will not simply disappear because of physical distance, and so neither will the need for OAS. GW students will continue to experience violence and trauma off campus, including in their home communities, furthering the need for the support provided by OAS.

Our current public health crisis has limited both mobility for survivors and access to crucial resources. But throughout all of this, OAS has continued to provide high-quality service and support to survivors of the GW community. An anti-racist ideology that does not value and assess the intersections of survivorship, gender identity, sexual orientation and race, and the unique resources needed for individuals who are situated within these, is an incomplete one. If GW seeks to effectively assert its dedication to anti-racism as a practice in pursuit of justice, the institution must affirm the crucial role of OAS by protecting it from the layoffs.

The role of OAS will only increase in value in light of the new Title IX regulations presented by the Department of Education under Betsy Devos’ direction. Limiting the definition of sexual harassment and retraumatizing effects of the proposed investigation process pose several additional barriers for survivors seeking justice through the Title IX process. Survivors will need to tell their story multiple times to officials, which will inevitably deter survivors from pursuing the formal Title IX process. These barriers clearly point to the need for a confidential resource for survivors of sexual violence, a role that OAS fills with great care and efficiency.

In addition, the purpose of the Title IX office is to adhere to federal policy and carry out investigations of situations that are in violation of said policy. Although it has the power to enact interim support and protective measures, its core mission is not to support survivors but rather to establish a system to create accountability around gender-based discrimination. This role is crucial and important, but it does not fulfill the need of every survivor. The presence of OAS is an important step to giving autonomy to survivors so they are able to pursue personal and systemic justice in whatever way they choose. The Title IX office is not sufficient to fulfill the needs of the GW community – a confidential advocacy and support resource that is there for all survivors of all kinds of violence is necessary.

OAS has fostered a safe space for not only sexual assault survivors to seek support confidentially, but survivors of all forms of interpersonal violence, including racism and homophobia. OAS has provided Title IX trainings as well as redesigned the mandatory first-year sexual violence prevention trainings to have a more holistic approach. The team recognizes the importance of its position as officials while also understanding the impact of peer-led support. Because of this, they regularly collaborate with SASA on curriculum and serve as advisers who empower students to take a more active role in designing the culture we want to see on our campus. When on campus, OAS reduced the burden on emergency staff and other campus resources by providing not only support but resource referrals as well. Staff continues to do this even now that we are not on campus. OAS is the only strictly confidential administrative office on campus and by extent one of the only offices that truly prioritizes the needs of students above all else. It is a crucial space and must be protected in this time of great need.

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