Federal investigation of sexual assaults on college campuses has garnered attention nationwide in recent months, and four Virginia schools are under scrutiny.
Following VCU president Michael Rao’s statement earlier this year on sexual violence and the school’s Duty to Report campaign, new compliance training and federal regulations regarding sexual violence and harassment will be going into effect this year.
With the Duty to Report policy, university administration expect the VCU community to report any suspected illegal ongoings, especially in cases of sexual assaults, sexual harassment, stalking or dating violence.
Since 2010, nearly 30 incidents of forcible sex offenses between the Monroe Park and MCV campuses have been reported in the Annual Disclosure of Campus Security report by VCU Police. Not a single non-forcible sex offense was reported.
Data of criminal offenses from 2013 have yet to be released, but is expected in October.
VCU police chief John Venuti says future reports will include incidents of dating violence and stalking in order to give a more accurate account of sexual violence-related incidents on campus.
VCU’s Title IX team, which includes VCU PD, the Office for Institutional Equity, Division of Student Affairs, Human Resources and VCU Athletics, are distributing a climate survey on campus in order to assess what needs to be taught on campus pertaining to the issue.
“When you capture the essence of it, it’s meant to enhance victim’s safety,” said vice resident for inclusive excellence Wanda Mitchell. “But it’s also meant to hold offenders and institutions accountable and responsible.”
In April, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault reached out to universities across the country and outlined what measures should be taken to eliminate rape and sexual violence from the country’s college campuses.
The month prior to the release of the White House report, several members of the VCU community were invited to Washington to help develop the guidelines which would be recommended and given to the nation’s colleges and universities.
As of July 2, a list of 67 different higher-education institutions were listed as being federally investigated for possible violations against Title IX, the educational anti-discrimination law.
Included on that list are four Virginia schools, University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, University of Richmond and, most recently and visibly, James Madison University.
“The compliance is really multi-pronged,” said VCU dean of students and deputy Title IX coordinator Reuban Rodriguez. “The University has internal procedures and expectations for any faculty, staff and students. It’s a community of 50,000 and a lot can occur on an individual level which may not arise to the attention of the folks needed,” he added.
As VCU administers the new compliance training to faculty, staff and all incoming freshmen students, the focus is on explaining what is considered sexual assault and harrassement. Much of the training is also focused on what resources and institutions are available on campus for both students and faculty to address any concerns or allegations.
The White House report on sexual violence states one in five women in college fall victim to sexual violence during their tenure in school.
The Obama administration has taken a stand against the growing epidemic of rape culture on college campuses, which is defined as commonplace and de facto condoned sexual assaults.
While there’s a new emphasis on university accountability, which is being demonstrated through these investigations, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights have said they are in no way indicating at this stage whether the college or university is violating or has violated the law.
In January, VCU and the University of Richmond received a $500,000 grant to develop programs to address the issues of sexual violence, providing funding to educate students, local law enforcement and first responders.
Tammi Slovinsky, the Sexual Assault Prevention Coordinator from the Well, has been the project lead and was a member of the contingent that travelled to Washington back in March.
Through her position, Slovinsky is responsible for helping coordinate what is taught to students, faculty and staff regarding sexual violence, including subjects such as dating violence, domestic violence, stalking and LGBTQ violence.
“For someone who is victimized, especially by someone else on campus, they may be afraid of running into them,” Slovinsky said. “Sexual violence is very traumatic, it can lead to mental health issues such as depression, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety. It can be difficult on their studies. It leads to being fearful, often times it’s done by someone the victim knows. In a community, such as a college campus, it makes it difficult.”
Both Slovinsky and Rodriguez have said the approach VCU and other national universities will be taking to address the issue of sexual violence will be changing in the next few months.
Venuti and Mitchell both said visibility of their departments and their commitment to ensuring a safe, non-discriminatory environment is essential. Venuti said the VCU PD’s webpage is being redesigned so contact information for sexual violence coordinators will be more prominent.
“Although we are confident that our university community is successfully living out these high standards, there are enough cautionary tales from campuses around the country that remind us that we should remain vigilant and regularly communicate with the entire campus community about our duty to report and address any wrongdoing,” Rao said in a statement in February.
Because of the nature of sexual assaults, guilt and shame is closely associated when becoming a victim of these crimes. Slovinsky also said there is a “victim-blaming” and rape culture that exists on many college campuses, where people may try detracting blame from assailants and assigning responsibility on the victim.
“They might be more likely to not report it. What we do in our education is try to explain what sexual violence is so students understand what it is and if it happens they know we have a sexual-misconduct policy in place to address it,” Slovinsky said. “Sexual violence is one of the most underreported crimes today.”
If you or someone you know has been victimized by sexual violence, dating violence or is thought to be in danger, please contact any of the following:
VCU Police Sexual Assault Coordinator: (804)828-6347
VCU Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Advocate: (804)828-2085
YWCA of Richmond: (804)643-0888