Editor’s note: This article contains references to sexual assault. Please see the bottom of this story for additional resources.
American University Student Government’s Women’s Initiative hosted its annual Take Back the Night rally against sexual violence Tuesday in the Kay Spiritual Life Center, where attendees had a chance to share their stories of sexual assault and raised concerns about AU’s mental health resources.
The event was co-sponsored by campus group Abolish Greek Life and AU’s chapter of It’s On Us, a nationwide initiative focused on sexual assault prevention and education on campus.
The event began with opening remarks from WI leaders, who explained the purpose of the event as creating a safe space for survivors to open up about their experiences without shame or fear.
“[This event] was intentionally created as a space for victims of sexual assault and violence to come and speak out about their experiences in a space where there is no mandatory reporter, so everything they talk about they can share and it’s not going to be reported,” said WI Deputy Creative Director Rory Hayes, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, in an interview with The Eagle. “We wanted to continue to provide that space for students to share their experiences safely.”
WI Director Kaniya Harris, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs, said safe spaces on campus can be hard to find for struggling students — a problem that she attributed to what she said were inadequate mental health resources from the school.
“I think AU has a lot to work on, especially finding safe spaces for students because it feels like the bulk of it is put on clubs and organizations,” Harris said, who cited a long wait for mental health consultations with the counseling center as a major problem.
According to Harris, issues related to sexual violence could be addressed more effectively if University administrators listened more when students voice their concerns.
WI Director of Finance and Logistics Skylar White, a sophomore in the School of International Service, said the process of accessing AU’s mental health services, specifically the limited time that students get with counselors, fails to meet most students’ needs.
“It’s really hard to get help … and then have to wait six weeks to get your first consultation and then only have six weeks to get to know a therapist and then basically get kicked to the curb without any resources,” White said, mentioning that the options are even more limited for low-income students.
Hayes said she has experienced these shortcomings first-hand.
“I remember my freshman year, I was seeking counseling, and because my appointment was so far away … I didn’t even go,” Hayes said. “It was really hard just to even fill out the form to set an appointment.
According to the AU Counseling Services website, the Counseling Center can only provide six to eight sessions of weekly individual therapy per academic year, after which students may be referred off-campus for further care. White emphasized the need to hire more staff in the mental health department so students can receive proper treatment.
“They need to hire more counseling staff,” White said. “It’s unacceptable to make people who are depressed and anxious and going through who knows what wait six weeks to talk to an adult who cares about them. That’s not safe, it’s just reckless.”
Hayes said that student organizations like WI are left to fill the gaps in mental health support on campus.
“We do serve our community, that’s what we exist for, we wouldn’t be an organization if we didn’t have people to serve, but we are also students, too,” Hayes said. “I think it’s very interesting that we are providing a resource to other students that the institution that we go to isn’t actually providing.”
Hayes added that the Take Back the Night event is an important time to center the stories of survivors over perpetrators, something she said the University does not do.
“Thinking specifically about if an individual reports that they have been assaulted, that goes to Title IX,” Hayes said, referring to the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools. However, Hayes said support from this group is often lacking.
“I know individuals who have started the process and they’re kind of scared off from calling the police, but if they don’t call the police, Title IX does nothing really,” she said.
In an email to The Eagle, AU spokesperson Elizabeth Deal said that there has been an increased demand for the services offered by the Office of Equity and Title IX, but AU remains committed to following University and federal guidelines.
"The number of community members seeking the services of the office has increased exponentially while the university’s commitment to thoroughness and fairness does require time and a careful assessment of each individual matter. It is also worth noting that the current federal Title IX rules have additional requirements that must be adhered to by the University that add to the time it takes to process cases," Deal wrote.
At the same time, Hayes said little is done in the way of punishment for the perpetrators of sexual violence.
“I know people who have been reported, and they’re still attending this university, they’re still getting recognized for their contributions and achievements as upstanding American University students, and they’ve got Title IX investigations into them,” Hayes said.
White said that AU’s failure to respond to sexual assaults on its campus feeds into a wider culture of silence and victim-blaming on college campuses in general.
“It’s not a priority of this school to recognize that there’s a problem,” White said. “I think that’s a big problem with all the things that go on through sexual assault and sexual violence. People don’t want to address that there’s a problem, they would prefer that people would remain quiet about it, and remaining quiet brings on personal shame and victimization, as well.”
Despite caveats with the school, White said that events like Take Back the Night offer a vital opportunity for survivors to heal by finding a community that can empathize with their situation.
“It just feels so good to be able to say it as a fact and have it be okay that this really heavy part of yourself is allowed to exist, and you don’t need to carry that because you didn’t do anything,” White said. “It’s not your burden to carry, even though you will always carry it.”
To seek help or support for sexual violence, visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s resource page. The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached at 1-800-656-4673.