Three months after AU announced a working group to address concerns about sexual violence, students say it isn’t doing enough
Group's work so far has focused on availability of resources and information, officials said
In response to an instance of sexual assault in Leonard Hall that resulted in an outcry from the American University community, the University announced in November 2022 that the Community Working Group on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Harassment and Violence would be formed to address campus concerns.
In the three months since, that group has held two meetings to discuss implementable solutions. Yet, according to some students, there are improvements to be made in encouraging student involvement and transparency about the working group’s goals.
When forming the Community Working Group, the University asked Shannon Hader, the dean of the School of International Service, and Vicky Wilkins, the dean of the School of Public Affairs, to co-chair the project.
According to Hader, she and Wilkins are committed to having community input drive the Community Working Group’s efforts to address holistic issues.
“I'm just a big believer in the importance of stakeholder-driven approaches to identify solutions, not just because they come out with better solutions at large, but also because I'm such a believer that it takes a lot of work to change a community, and you can only do that if people are willing to put in the work,” Hader said.
So far, the working group has put an emphasis on making sure information and resources are available and up-to-date. According to Wilkins, the working group had new stickers put up around campus, such as in bathrooms, that showed the most recent information about survivor resources provided by the Center for Well-Being Programs and Psychological Services’ victim advocacy services.
Wilkins also said that, after recommendations from the first working group meeting, the University’s administration sought advice from external sexual violence training organizations on how to address holistic issues on campus. According to University’s Chief Communications Officer Matthew Bennett those organizations included It’s On Us, End Rape on Campus, Know Your IX and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. Wilkins said the University’s administration is undertaking a process of reviewing its own internal policy with the same lens.
The efforts made in the working group to identify and invent solutions for problems relating to on-campus sexual violence will culminate in a report that will be submitted to the University’s Board of Trustees in April.
However, according to Hader, there are some action items that don’t require the Board of Trustees’ approval and can be done before the report is submitted.
“April is an end of the whole process for recommendations and report,” Hader said. “Things that can be done in the meantime, we're not waiting till April to do — things like improved information resources.”
Emily Minster, a senior in SPA, said she has not been satisfied with efforts to keep students engaged with the Community Working Group. According to her, if students did not respond to the initial email that was sent out to the student body about the group, then they received no further communication or information.
“I think that that's been really frustrating because it prevents people from getting involved and staying engaged,” Minster said.
This, coupled with what she says is an inaccessible monthly 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. meeting time, was why she helped to organize the “people’s working group.” Minster said this group was created to ensure the voices of students were being represented in Community Working Group meetings. This was done by holding a separate, prior meeting to take note of issues that students want to raise or solutions that they want to propose.
"The Wednesday meeting times were selected based on previous experiences bringing together larger groups of campus stakeholders. There is no perfect time to bring students, faculty, and staff together given different schedules for classes, office hours, work days, etc. Typically, there are fewer classes taking place during the Wednesday afternoon window and more faculty and staff could participate because it is during traditional working hours," Bennett wrote in an email to The Eagle.
According to Minster, the people’s working group was meant to make sure that students’ voices were heard even if they can’t make it to Community Working Group meetings.
“So we just wanted to give that space and make sure that we took note of people’s ideas and responses so that those could then be taken to the [Community] Working Group and say, ‘a lot of students can't be here because of the inconvenience of this time and the lack of forethought to create other spaces for them to share their voices so here’s what they have to say,’” Minster said.
Minster also criticized a lack of transparency about the end goal of the Community Working Group. She said that it hasn’t been made clear to participants what influence they will have on what will be included in the April report or what the report is expected to accomplish.
“So it's like, how do you approach creating solutions when you have no idea what the parameters of those solutions potentially could be?” she said.
Minster and other student organizers created a list of five demands when the initial protests from the Leonard Hall incident took place. These demands proposed the creation of a survivors’ bill of rights, monthly updates to the University’s Title IX website, the hiring of a trauma-informed counselor at the Well-Being Center and mandatory annual sexual violence trainings, one for students and another for staff, faculty and student employees.
Minster said that these demands had been communicated to the Community Working Group and she hopes to see them implemented. As of the time of publication, zero of them have been put into place.
“There are years of work, and research, and conversations with students on our campus about what AU specifically needs,” Minster said. “So it would save people a lot of time and meetings if they would just take these recommendations and go with them instead of having to come up with all these new ones.”
According to Wilkins, the demands released by student organizers have played an influential role in guiding Community Working Group discussions.
“We know them well. And they of course guided our behavior,” she said. “We're grateful that the students, you know, took the time to put them forward and help inform this conversation.”
Yet, Hader also said that they want to ensure all opinions are represented as conversations about ways to continue.
“You have ways to listen to the loudest and most passionate of voices but also the quietest or the shyest of the voices that might not be heard otherwise,” she said.
Going forward, the Community Working Group is going to be working in smaller, topic-specific groups that will come up with solutions or work on those already proposed. According to Wilkins, those topics will include some of the demands issued by student organizers. In adopting this format, Wilkins says she hopes that more students can get involved by creating work times outside of the once-a-month Community Working Group meeting. In the meantime, they will continue to hold meetings monthly and say that community stakeholders that are looking to get involved should email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Minster hopes that following the feedback given by the people’s working group at the last community working group meeting, there will be a renewed effort to engage students.
“I’m hoping that after that, we get more of a ‘Alright, how do we better engage students?’ or ‘what do you suggest we do to bring more students in?’ But so far, not yet,” Minster said.
This article was edited by Mackenzie Konjoyan, Jordan Young and Nina Heller. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis, Luna Jinks, Leta Lattin, Sarah Clayton and Stella Guzik.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the Working Group's recommendations go to the Board of Trustees. The story has been updated to reflect that the recommendations go to the university president and cabinet. The story has also been updated to include additional information about the selection of the meeting times.