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Saturday, April 20, 2024
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Students and advocates aren’t satisfied as University’s Community Working Group on sexual violence nears final recommendations

Outside organizations levy criticism, students claim they are mistreated at meetings

Editor’s note: This story contains references to sexual assault. Please see the bottom of this story for additional resources. 

As the American University Community Working Group on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Harassment and Violence nears the deadline to submit its recommendations at the end of April, student attendees say they aren’t satisfied with the outcomes or how they have been treated.

The CWG released their first recommendations draft at their meeting on April 5 after meeting with sexual assault prevention organizations Know Your IX, Every Voice Coalition, Every Voice’s  D.C. chapter, It’s On Us, It’s On Us’ AU chapter and End Rape On Campus on March 1.

Survivor advocacy organizations criticized the CWG for not having a representative from the Office of Equity and Title IX at meetings and offered suggestions for several other changes. 

“Its very hard and every single meeting it gets worse and worse and worse,” said Lillian Frame, a senior in the School of Public Affairs and student organizer who was involved in initial protests after an alleged sexual assault in Leonard Hall.

Consulting with experts

The organizations at the March 1 meeting had signed a letter, addressed to AU President Sylvia Burwell’s office, in support of student demands following the initial protests that resulted from the alleged sexual assault that occurred in Leonard Hall, according to Kenyora Parham, the executive director of End Rape on Campus. Representatives from the attending organizations were invited to a meeting with the CWG to discuss potential solutions and best practices for the University as it works to formulate a set of recommendations for the President’s office on how to address sexual violence and harassment on campus. 

Tracey Vitchers, the executive director of It’s On Us, said that the most important concern voiced at the meeting was the absence of a representative from the Office of Equity and Title IX at past and present Community Working Group meetings.

“The fact that there was no Title IX coordinator on the call representing that office was just unacceptable to me,” Vitchers said. “You can't change a problem if you don't have the stakeholders who will be responsible for creating that change as a part of the Working Group to create those solutions.” 

Those concerns were echoed by Julia Comino, a sophomore in the School of Communication and SPA, who has been regularly attending CWG meetings. Comino also chairs the Undergraduate Senate special committee on combating sexual violence and harassment as a senator for the Class of 2025. According to Comino, she raised these concerns in a meeting with Leslie Annexstein, the assistant vice president for equity and Title IX. Annexstein allegedly said in the meeting she had with Comino that attending the CWG meeting presented potential conflicts for staff in the Office of Equity and Title IX who are investigating Title IX complaints, according to Comino. 

“[Annexstein] said that going to a Community Working Group meeting would give either the complainant or the alleged violator of Title IX the ability to point to that as a way that the Title IX office has not been impartial,” Comino said.  

However, Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Matthew Bennett said that scheduling difficulties have prevented a representative from the Office of Equity and Title IX from being at past CWG meetings. Bennett also said that the working group facilitators are organizing a dedicated meeting with the Office.

“That office is small and they have, obviously, an extensive workload. They are critical to this conversation,” Bennett said in an interview with The Eagle. “That's why we're setting up this specific meeting about it.”

In a statement, AU Internal Communications Manager Jasmine Pelaez declined The Eagle’s request for an interview with Annexstein. According to Pelaez, Bennett’s response is to be taken as the University’s comment.

Outside of Title IX representation, representatives of the outside organizations also called for consideration of the demands issued initially by student organizers, changes to the makeup of the group itself and improved efforts to engage students with the Community Working Group.

According to Vitchers, representatives of the organizations that were present suggested meaningful consideration of the demands that were created by student organizers as a starting point for future discussions. In a petition signed by over 1,400 AU community members, organizers demand the University create a survivors’ bill of rights, update the University’s Title IX website monthly, hire a trauma-informed counselor at the Center for Well-Being and Psychological Services and mandate annual sexual violence trainings, one for students and another for staff, faculty and student employees.

“The fact that the University came to us saying ‘We don't know where to start’ isn't acceptable because the students have told them where to start, and they need to trust their students,” Vitchers said.

The makeup of the Community Working Group was also criticized, according to Parham. She said she felt the CWG had not done enough to engage students with diverse and intersecting identities and that those voices are necessary to properly inform CWG discussions.

Parham also said she raised an issue with there being members of University Communications and Marketing teams involved in the facilitation of the working group.

“I found that to be highly inappropriate, for someone who's in that capacity to be serving on a working group that's meant to be helping support students and survivors, versus ‘how can we engage in external communications and trying to uphold the imagery of the school itself,’” Parham said.

Bennett, who has been involved in the Community Working Group since the beginning, said that his role is to support the efforts of the working group.

“I volunteered to be part of this working group because I think it's important, and I volunteered to help coordinate this group because it matters to me,” Bennett said. “I think people's views are valid. But I also think it is important to understand that the reason I am there is not because I am in charge of communications. It's because I am working to help make this university move forward.”

Frame, Comino and organization representatives said there was a lack of communication about the meetings and that the onus had been put on students to engage the student body. Comino said she thinks many students weren’t being reached, since information about the working group, at the time of the March 1 meeting, was being sent only to students who expressed interest when the working group was initially announced. 

“And overall, just the sense that the Community Working Group is alleging that they're trying to get as many student voices there, yet they've continued to have like … less than a dozen at every meeting — It's false information,” Comino said.

On March 28, an email was sent out to the broader campus community that invited anyone to attend the meeting on April 5. The meeting also offered a virtual option for the first time. According to the email, this change was made in response to the feedback given at the March 1 meeting. 

Opening up the Community Working Group

At the April meeting, the CWG facilitators provided the rest of the group with a preliminary draft of the recommendations that will be given to the President’s Office. CWG participants then gave their feedback on each of the items so that the draft can be revised before the final recommendation deadline. 

According to Vicky Wilkins, the dean of SPA and co-facilitator of the CWG, the group made a number of changes prior to the April meeting, in addition to opening the meeting to the whole campus community to address the concerns expressed by the outside organizations. A representative from the Office of Equity and Title IX attended the April 5 meeting, according to both Wilkins and Frame. 

Wilkins said that the draft recommendations were sent to a handful of community organizations that represent historically marginalized communities. According to Assistant Vice President for Community and Internal Communication Elizabeth Deal, the invitation for the April 5 meeting was also sent to a variety of community groups, including the Disabled Student Union, AU Pride and Students for Change.

Yet CWG attendees continue to raise concerns about the lack of contact the group has had with the outside organizations since the March 1 meeting. Frame said she was disappointed that there was no mention of further consultation with the organizations before the dissolution of the working group at the end of April.

“I would have liked them to meet with the outside organizations more on these things,” Frame said. “However, I've been to every single one of these working group meetings, and I am not shocked by anything that they do at this point.”

Wilkins thinks working further with those outside organizations is still possible. 

“We sought their advice, asked them about best practices and those types of things, so I think we still definitely want to talk to them and other groups,” she said. “I think that the door’s still open for insight and advice.”

In addition to concerns about outside organizations’ involvement, Frame and other student participants said there are recurring issues with how students have been treated throughout the working group process. Frame said she will not be signing her name onto the final recommendations because of the treatment students on the CWG received and the way their feedback was represented in the draft.

According to Frame, the CWG has communicated with student participants poorly, particularly since the March 1 meeting. She said that there was no communication with student participants before the April 5 meeting and that students were given 24 hours notice when the meeting was moved from its original March 29 date.

“... We went like a month where we were fully ghosted by them,” Frame said. “They did not send confirmations about the next meeting, they did not send notes about the March 1 meeting, they completely ignored all emails from AUSG — and we thought like, ‘Oh, they're holding the next meeting without us and just cut us out of the process.’”

Montague Chevallier, a sophomore in SPA and the College of Arts and Sciences who frequently attended CWG meetings, said he has both witnessed and experienced being talked down to at meetings by faculty and staff. According to Chevallier, this has led to feelings of division between student participants and other members of the CWG.

“I definitely sense, very much, a top-down perspective and being talked down to,” Chevallier said. “I wasn't moved to tears at the meeting, but I certainly was moved to just disbelief and exasperation.”

Frame said she has experienced various instances of mistreatment over the course of the CWG that have ranged from poor communication and being talked down to, to receiving “harassing” text messages from faculty on the CWG. Comino and Chevallier both said they also have either seen or experienced mistreatment at CWG meetings. 

In a statement provided to The Eagle, Bennett said that the goal of the working group was to balance the varying needs of participants to create a constructive and supportive environment for the community to give feedback. According to him, that feedback has been appreciated and integral in formulating the recommendations that are being finalized. 

“The CWG addressed difficult topics, and we know these conversations can be concerning and traumatic,” Bennett said. “Working through these issues as a community, even when the conversations are difficult and there are disagreements, is how we can make the progress we all want … We cannot speak to individual text conversations or how an individual may have felt at any given time, but we are committed to listening to and supporting our community members.”

Frame and other student attendees expressed a need for emotional support staff at meetings due to feeling emotionally and mentally drained from meetings. According to Frame, this results from both the sensitive content of the meetings and the “extremely difficult” treatment she said she has received. 

“I plan my therapy appointments around these meetings,” Frame said. “I specifically place it after these meetings because of the mental toll it takes.”

Wilkins said she also wants to have dedicated support staff and understands that the topics discussed at the CWG meetings are particularly difficult for many of the group’s members who are survivors of sexual violence. 

“They’re distressing, and I think we're all feeling it,” Wilkins said. 

Enacting lasting change

Looking forward, Wilkins said she is hopeful for the impact the recommendations will have on AU’s campus and that she’s proud of what the group has accomplished thus far. According to her, the ultimate goal is for students to feel that they’ve made a significant change when the recommendations are implemented.

“It's going to be a moment, I think, of great pride,” Wilkins said. “But I'm just not sure we're going to feel it because it's been a hard road there, and it's so emotional and so hard. I just would like for the students to feel pride because they have made a marked change on this campus already, and it's just the beginning.”

Chevallier said he is trying hard to remain optimistic and that he believes strongly in the involved students’ efforts.

“I can say that I feel, as part of the student body that goes to these meetings, I am so proud of the students who go and are able to emotionally take it,” he said. “I feel like there’s a lot of good ideas amongst my peers, and I have hope that we’re going to be able to make our own progress. It’s just a matter of the administration catching up and being willing to listen.”

Vitchers said partnering with students is the way forward for the Community Working Group and enacting lasting change on AU's campus.

“The fact that the students keep coming to the table over and over and over again … shows their commitment to creating this change even though it is causing them so much harm at times to do so,” she said. “It is time for the University to show its commitment to its students because that is the bare minimum that they can do at this point.”

Students who have experienced sexual assault or harassment can seek support through confidential resources such as University’s Center for Well-Being Programs and Psychological Services, the Student Health Center or the following hotlines:

  • Collegiate Assistance Program: 1-855-678-8679
  • Rape, Abuse, Incest, National Network (RAINN) anonymous chat
  • RAINN hotline: 1-800-656-4673
  • DC Rape Crisis Center: 202-333-7273

Other resources include:

  • It’s On Us
  • Know Your IX
  • End Rape on Campus

Non-confidential resources include the University’s Office of Equity and Title IX and AUPD. 

This article was edited by Abigail Turner, Jordan Young and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis, Leta Lattin, Luna Jinks, Sarah Clayton and Stella Guzik.

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