Issues of sexual assault and harassment have been at the forefront of public attention. Numerous reports of sexual assault have been vocalized against high profile individuals such as film producer Harvey Weinstein and actor Ben Affleck. Such accusations inspired campaigns such as the #MeToo hashtag, which encourages survivors of sexual assault to share their stories on social media platforms in order to draw attention to the magnitude of the issue. While national discourse on the topic is at a high, Washington University’s campus has had its fair share of discussion as well.
This past 2017 spring semester, a student published an op-ed in StudLife detailing her troubling experience going through the process of reporting her sexual assault through the university’s University Sexual Assault Investigative Board process (USAIB) and published a follow-up article this semester upon completion of the process—251 days later, far beyond the USAIB’s published 60 day timeline. According to another StudLife article quoting Vice Chancellor of Public Affairs, Jill Friedman, the university as of this past summer has also been under investigation for three Title IX investigations, two of which relate to sexual assault and one which relates to sexual harassment. The university conducted Title IX “listening sessions” earlier in this semester, hoping to obtain some feedback from the campus regarding their approach to handling sexual assault through the USAIB process.
I spoke with Director of the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention center, Kim Webb, to learn about her input on these events and feedback on what we as a campus and as individuals can do to keep our community safe and healthy. Though not ultimately involved in the decision-making process, Webb works closely with Title IX director Jessica Kennedy, and others involved in the Title IX office, fulfilling a student support role. Webb can serve as a witness if the student involved provides consent/requests her to do so but otherwise is not present at the meetings themselves. In addition, Webb is involved in providing training for the members that make up the panel—a set of individuals typically composed of one student, one faculty member, and one staff member. Behind the scenes, Webb is often one of the first people a student contacts if they were interested in reporting their assault through the university process and talks to individuals about their options as well as what going through the process looks like.
Anu: What is your take on the current USAIB system’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to prioritizing and protecting the needs of the survivor?
Kim: First, I want to acknowledge that we greatly appreciate the feedback we have received from the op-eds and Title IX listening sessions. People have been really courageous in coming forward and sharing their experiences. This feedback has highlighted a lot of the things that can be improved about the process. The aim is of course to support students and we do know we can work on the timeline—that seems to be the main piece of feedback regarding the process. As far as things that the process does well, it is a very thorough process.
Anu: The USAIB process is something unique to WashU. How does WashU’s approach compare to that of other universities around the country?
Kim: The USAIB process is very much a homegrown one. Each institution has their own way of doing it. For example, some institutions have one person who deals with everything such as St. Louis University. Others do not have students be part of the process, something we feel is very important to have.
Anu: What factors contribute to the significantly extended time, beyond the published 60 days, that the USAIB process almost always takes to complete?
Kim: I think this is really a result of the process being so thorough. We do interview every identified witness and have one investigator who manages all of that and everybody’s schedule so there’s a potential for time lost here. The process is naturally a very emotionally taxing one, so sometimes individuals ask for a little bit more time to respond to statements or go through the interview. Panel members are also either full-time students, faculty, or staff, so coordinating all of these schedules in order to be very intentional with the reading of reports and the deliberation process can be time consuming.
Anu: How does the issue of sexual assault change when discussed under the lens of college campuses? What specific challenges arise in your opinion when discussing the topic in this context?
Kim: A lot of cases on college campuses do involve drugs or alcohol, and individuals who are not part of a college campus environment often do not understand this aspect. Examples of sexual assault and rape can be sensationalized through the media—the traditional image is that of a stranger in the dark jumping out from the bushes. The unique challenges of alcohol and drugs mean that we have to ensure victim blaming does not occur and emphasize that there is a correlation but not a causal relationship. And even in cases without alcohol or drugs involved, these cases still do not look like those sensationalized. This results in education barriers: we see this play out in support organizations that would typically work with individuals outside of college campuses. It’s key to be able to share education to broaden these individuals’ understanding of student experiences.
Anu: What would you see as potential fixes, both short-term and long-term, as solutions for our own campus’s problem with sexual assault? This is definitely a pretty big question, but perhaps a few examples.
Kim: We have amazing student groups on this campus like the Sexual Assault and Rape Anonymous Helpline (S.A.R.A.H), and Leaders in Interpersonal Violence Education (LIVE) who are really committed to effecting change, as well as other students aren’t in these groups. It does seem like a pretty daunting issue to try and fix, whether on campus or off campus looking at the national and political scene. However, there is a lot of energy and a lot of resources ready on this campus, and a lot of action steps for students. For example, many students go through Green Dot Bystander Intervention Training. All of these are things that help to slowly change the culture. Outside of campus, it’s important to be engaged in bringing others into the discussion. We can talk to our board members, alumni, and others who might influence policy.
Anu: A related question, but how can more students be involved in efforts to recognize and end sexual assault and violence? University administrators?
Kim: This is again all about education, including things like the op-eds, which help start and keep conversations regarding this topic in the forefront. Students, faculty, and staff who have been through bystander intervention training have an opportunity not only to further the conversation but also to take a stand through their speech, actions, writing, [and] assignments regarding concerning behavior. We need to continually recognize ways to intervene. We are definitely seeing more of this change slowly happen. Faculty, in particular, have a responsibility to bring this discussion into the classroom. For example, by adding information regarding resources to their syllabi, and by talking about popular culture or events and what is going on around us.
Anu: You touched earlier on the national and political scheme. How might this current political climate influence the conversation regarding sexual assault or Title IX as a whole?
Kim: Racism, immigration, and other seemingly unrelated issues are all things that we have to take into account and address when we address sexual harassment and sexual violence. Earlier guidance on sexual has been rescinded, but Washington University is committed to protecting students in the same way that Title IX had indicated before. There is a lot of uncertainty and fear regarding regulatory pieces to come in the future. For individuals, these fears are even more worrisome as pieces have been removed immediately from Title IX language which continue to make these identities invisible. However, I am not fearful about our campus’s ability to protect and provide them with the accommodations they need. It’s that we spend our energy being active in the conversation and effecting change. Now is the time to be the active participant, not the bystander.
Edited by: Ahnthi Luong
Illustrated by: Caroline Cao