Staff Editorial: AU’s carefully calculated PR moves cannot remedy a decade-long neglect of survivors of sexual violence
Response to community outcry is ineffective to meet the needs of students and survivors
Safety should be a basic right on campus. When that right is violated, the administration should not only listen to students’ demands, but act. On Thursday afternoon, Nov. 10, a new wave of discontent was initiated amongst the American University community against the administration’s handling of sexual violence cases.
Hundreds of AU students on the quad wore red clothing to signify the overflow of reported sexual assault cases remaining on the virtual desk of the Title IX office. The blaring of the megaphones resembled the cries from the all-women floor in Leonard that opposes the open card access to their sacred living space. The unison of the student body is synonymous with the routine of student residents showering in pairs to maintain a level of safety.
This isn’t the first time survivors have had to fight for acknowledgement and restoration of damaged trust from administration. Over the years, the administration has routinely let down members of the community, from initial disapproval of increased grant funding towards sexual assault programs, to faulty repercussions toward Epsilon Iota for leaked messages in 2014 that exposed themes of sexual assault and intoxicating female students. In a 2014 protest organized by AU No More Silence, one of the long-term demands students petitioned for was the employment of a full-time administrative position specialized in supporting victims of sexual violence. Nine years later, a trauma-informed counselor remains to be an unmet demand of the community.
Communication from the administration in the past decade in response to sexual violence remains in a cookie cutter format, continuously boasting about undefined work being done behind closed doors. In The Eagle’s coverage of the student walkout, Matthew Bennett, AU’s vice president and chief communications officer, said bureaucratically that “work is being done every day in every office” and the newly introduced community working group seeks to “look at the larger systemic issues.” With past unfulfilled promises to update the AU community on investigations, repetition of buzzwords such as “commitment” and “improvement” and the failure to maintain existing working groups, students are unsure of the power behind these words. What students are asking AU to do isn’t difficult — organizers have even provided an example of a survivor’s bill of rights from UMass Amherst that AU could implement.
In a 2011 forum scheduled by the Office of Campus Life, former Vice President of Campus Life Gail Hanson outlined the University’s plan to expand its sexual assault programming. One of the initiatives introduced was the Peer Educators program, which is comprised of 12 trained students who run workshops on sexual harassment and assault, relationship violence and more. Yet, calls for alleviating the responsibility of students to conduct workshops and to seek outside facilitators from reputable organizations instead remain unanswered and ringing for 11 years.
As we’ve noted in our recent articles, from coverage on the AU Staff Union and on unauthorized KN95 masks, AU students and faculty are most empowered when confiding in their peers, rather than the coldness of empty promises. The return of alumni, such as Faith Ferber, who share their experiences paints a full-circle moment of how the harms enacted by administration are deep-rooted and long-lasting. The Eagle Editorial Board overwhelmingly supports the list of demands presented at the Nov. 14 walkout and implores a direct response from the Title IX office and Housing and Residence Life regarding the Leonard Hall incident, a direct apology from administration for its past failures and for sustained work in battling sexual violence.
AU students are admirably known to be the most politically active student body in the country, but the administration’s pattern of protecting abusers leaves us no choice.