Students at George Washington University are pushing their professors to help combat rape culture with one simple paragraph. They’re hoping to convince teachers to add a section detailing the sexual assault prevention services on campus to their class syallabi that get distributed at the beginning of each semester.
“People don’t know the resources that a Title IX coordinator can offer,” Ariella Neckritz, one of the primary activists who’s pushing for the syllabus change, explained to the university’s student newspaper. “So having that information in a really public place would hopefully encourage more people to reach out.”
GWU syllabi already typically include other information that the administration hopes to widely disseminate, like the school’s religious holiday policy and the contact information for the department that provides disability support. Neckritz points out that professors could easily add information about Title IX, the federal gender equity law that requires colleges to respond to rape cases on campus, as well as information about accessing the university’s sexual assault resources.
“Generally, I think it’s a creative idea. Anything that gets this sort of information into the hands of students is terrific — it’s information that they need,” Scott Berkowitz, the president of the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), told ThinkProgress. “We’ve found that people don’t ever expect to need a service like this. They tend not to hold onto information about sexual assault services. But they are going to hold onto a syllabus, since they need it for other purposes.”
According to the national group Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER), which helps support student-led campaigns to reform college sexual assault policies, GWU may be the first school to push for this type of syllabus requirement.
“It sounds like GWU students have identified an avenue through which they feel information on sexual violence prevention and survivor resources can be made easily available to students,” Tracey Vitchers, the communicators coordinator for SAFER, told ThinkProgress. “It’s great to see that student activists are organizing for changes.”
Vitchers noted that there’s no “one size fits all” approach to addressing sexual assault on campuses, so just because something works for GWU’s student body doesn’t necessarily mean it should be implemented everywhere. Still, it’s a good example of a simple step that an administration can take to start shifting the culture on campus — ultimately, making sexual assault policies transparent, and communicating to students that rape will be taken seriously.
There are other small ways that colleges can make sure this type of information is publicized among the student body, too. Campus residence halls can hang posters in the bathroom, student groups can hold tabling events, and, at least in the nation’s capital, students can even download a new app that provides confidential information about the services they may need after a sexual assault. RAINN believes these can all be important components of a broader strategy to implement effective programs, because repetition is key. Since most students assume that sexual assault resources aren’t relevant to them, and therefore won’t pay attention at first, they need to be exposed to this information over and over again.
“We’ve had success with using coffee sleeves,” Berkowitz noted. “It’s non-obtrusive — everyone gets one, and no one is embarrassed about walking around with it on their cup. Things like that, where students can get the information without being seen my their friends as being too interested in it, work well. That works better than information tables where they have to walk up and everyone can see them talking to the people at the table.”
Berkowitz and Vitchers both agree that bystander intervention education is an example of a tactic that can equip students with the tools they need to shift the culture around rape on campus. Those programs teach students about the subtle ways they can intervene in a situation before it turns dangerous — which helps ensure that rape prevention becomes the entire community’s responsibility, rather than continually putting the onus on victims.
“Bystander intervention education can be done effectively through emails and videos. It doesn’t need to be an expensive program that the college puts on,” Berkowitz explained. “A series of short messages actually work better than making people sit through a two-hour program, and also make it easier to get the necessary repetition in there to get the messages to stick.”
Vitchers’ organization recently identified several practices that colleges could pursue in order to create a better environment for rape victims. For instance, student health centers could make emergency contraception available to survivors at no additional cost, and schools could implement “amnesty clauses” so that students who were drinking or using drugs at the time of an assault don’t have to worry about getting in trouble if they report their rape. But SAFER found that the majority of colleges across the country don’t actually have these policies in place — even though it wouldn’t be that difficult for administrations to add them.
“Colleges and universities can increase both the support of survivors and the prevention of sexual assault in very tangible ways that will not necessitate hefty budget increases,” Vitchers noted. “While a comprehensive overhaul of a sexual assault policies and procedures is necessary at some institutions, others may have policies that lack the inclusion of a handful of ‘best practices’ that could be easily added into existing policies.”
Nonetheless, many administrations remain resistant to reforming any aspect of their policies in this area because they don’t want to draw public attention to their shortcomings. “We are still having college campuses trying to push incidences of sexual assault under the rug, and keep it silent. We all understand why that’s happening,” Shari Franschman, the director of the Violence Intervention Prevention Center at Bergen Community College, told ThinkProgress in an interview earlier this month. “It’s because it brings negative publicity to the college.”
In January, President Obama launched a new government initiative to investigate the campus rape crisis that will eventually deliver policy recommendations for universities. But there are actually plenty of tactics that colleges could start putting into place now, without needing to wait for the new task force’s suggestions. It’s just a matter of whether they’re willing to actually do it.