Moving Forward: Implementing an Educational Program at U.Va to Prevent Sexual Assault

This Post was co-authored by members of U.Va Alumni and Allies for Survivors.

While I was a senior at the University of Virginia, I'd wake up exhausted, immediately put the coffee pot on, and look out to my backyard where my best friend was brutally gang raped.

After distractedly sitting through class, I'd visit her. Entering the apartment gingerly, terrified to turn on the lights, I'd arrive armed with dumplings and IcyHot Patches, praying she'd eat this time and that her back would heal.

She never should have been raped, but when she was, she shouldn't have felt that her only support systems were dumplings and IcyHot. She deserved to feel like her community would believe her and treat her with respect, instead of admonishing her for not allowing the public release of her name. She deserved to be able to choose to report her attack, to University staff and to local police, without fear of blame or inaction. She deserved to be able to easily access all her reporting and support options.

I once tried to count how many survivors I knew, but I had to stop once I reached ten. I couldn't sleep because it felt impossible to rest. I couldn't escape the weight of the violence around me.

When the Rolling Stone article was published describing the pervasiveness of sexual assault at the University of Virginia, the President promised to "lead the way on this critical issue." While some took the Rolling Stone's retraction of the story as a sign to move on from the issue, I believe that the conversation must continue, and that the University's leadership is more important than ever.

It's not just Jackie's story. This is a systemic problem at U.Va, with more stories than we will ever know. And that's why it's so important we equip every student with the tools they will need to prevent and respond to violence.

Since November, I've been a member of a small group: U.Va. Alumni and Allies for Survivors. We've been meeting weekly to discuss how to change the culture of sexual assault at our alma mater. This group formed quite organically; we grew out of a small pocket of people who were frustrated by the way the University of Virginia handles incidents of sexual assault on campus. Most of us are alumni, a few of us aren't, but all of us are dedicated to pushing U.Va to fulfill its role as a national leader in education. Our backgrounds are diverse: our members have experience in organizing, women's health advocacy, government affairs, and public relations. We have been working with a variety of existing student and advocacy groups on campus throughout the winter and spring to collaboratively chart the best path forward to establishing reform on U.Va's campus.

We all agree that the University of Virginia needs to take bold action to provide its student body with tools to prevent and cope with sexual assault. With this in mind, we're proposing a mandatory, comprehensive, sexual assault and training program at U.Va. Currently, U.Va does provide some trainings on sexual assault, but none are comprehensive in nature; none touch the lives of all students during the entirety of their academic careers, and none adequately equip students with the tools needed to navigate the complex legal and cultural realities of winning justice in the wake of an act of sexual violence.

We need a mandatory education program because we're trying to change long-entrenched cultural practices. Sexual assaults on campus are committed by people (almost overwhelmingly male) who have spent their entire lives in a culture that provides constant messages antithetical to the idea of consent.

Sexual assault is so common that the vast majority of students will be affected by it in some way during their time in college.

We're proposing a recurring education program because real change won't come from a PowerPoint presentation, or an online questionnaire. These training sessions are places where students can ask questions that may not have tidy answers -- questions about policy, investigations, and intervention. It will also allow them to talk about their experiences, in a safe space, with supportive members of the university and advocacy communities. Throughout our conversations with student groups and advocacy organizations, it has become clear that often the only time students learn about the Sexual Misconduct Board (SMB) proceedings at U.Va is when they are in the midst of them. There is a long list of proposed revisions to the sexual assault policy being proposed by University community members, and we want to ensure that the students can fully understand the scope and implications of these new rules. Increased transparency will also help survivors better understand their options, and will put students in a position to demand that SMB policies work in their best interests. We don't want this educational program to be a one-off event; we think long-term, recurrent training programs will be most effective in changing the culture on campus.

While such a program alone will not shift the sexual assault culture at U.Va, it will ensure that all students have access to in-depth information about U.Va's sexual misconduct policies and the University's legal obligations under Title IX, equipping students with institutional knowledge that will help them continue to hold the University accountable, and allow them to support their community members in the best way possible.