As the 2018-19 school year got under way and on the eve of Domestic Violence Month, dozens of University of Mary Washington students turned out on Campus Walk to sign a “consent” pledge. To what did they consent? Never to commit, condone or remain silent about relationship or sexual violence.
The consent campaign highlights national trends, as well as numerous initiatives UMW has adopted to combat sexual assault and raise awareness of gender-based violence. The enhanced programming is bolstered by the creation of an independent Office of Title IX and a $300,000 grant awarded in 2016 by the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women.
The grant has allowed UMW to create a campus Center for Prevention and Education and a Coordinated Community Response Team, which includes members from throughout the University and the community. The initiatives also are the result of recommendations from the University’s Sexual Assault Task Force.
Statistics from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence show that nearly one in five women have been sexually assaulted during their lifetime and one in four women and one in nine men will experience abusive behaviors from their partners. Often survivors choose not to report at all or wait months, if not years, to come forward, so students sometimes choose to report incidents that occur at home or in other localities when they return to school.
While “reports of gender-based violence are up,” said Tiffany Oldfield, coordinator for the University’s Office of Title IX, the increased reporting does not necessarily reflect increased incidences of assault on campus. What the reports do reflect, she added, are UMW’s proactive efforts to make students aware of these societal issues and to educate them about how to seek help.
“Our goal has been to cultivate an environment where students are not stigmatized for speaking out about sexual and dating violence,” Oldfield said. “The increased reporting, in part, means that our community feels more comfortable coming forward and knows where to go for help.”
In addition, the watershed #MeToo movement sweeping the country has emboldened victims of sexual assault, domestic violence or harassment to come forward. Encouraged by the “it’s not just me” sentiment, women have spoken out in record numbers.
Earlier this year, the University hired a victim’s advocate who provides both an additional degree of confidentiality and education for students who may have experienced interpersonal violence. The victim’s advocate splits hours between the University’s Talley Counseling Center and two community agencies: Empowerhouse and the Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault.
All of these efforts are paying off, according to Oldfield. “Although it is positive that more reports are being made and people are coming forward, there is still much work to be done,” she said.
As the new academic year unfolds, the Office of Title IX looks forward to expanding current prevention, awareness and educational opportunities. Other initiatives undertaken by UMW include:
• Bystander intervention training for all students. This training encourages witnesses to speak up to prevent a gender-based assault.
• Training for UMW student athletes focused on how to recognize signs of unhealthy and abusive relationships.
• Title IX training sessions for faculty, staff and students. This includes a “Don’t Cancel Class” program that encourages professors to call in a prevention and education staff member to spend the class period leading a discussion about sexual assault prevention.
• Peer educator training for students who provide support and resources to fellow students that have experienced gender-based violence.
• All UMW law enforcement officers are now trained in trauma-informed investigation.
• All UMW law enforcement officers are trained crisis intervention.
For more information about UMW’s Office of Title IX and the Center for Prevention and Education, visit https://diversity.umw.edu/title-ix/.