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Sexual assault task force brings together campus-wide efforts

  • The Haven
    The Haven  The Haven, located in Campus Center room 166, will host an open house on Friday, 3 to 6 p.m.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Task Force
    Task Force  Members of the Task Force on Preventing Sexual Assault and Harassment in a recent meeting  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Caring support
    Caring support  Donna Haygood-Jackson, the university’s director of care-support services, said that The Haven "seeks to remove barriers between survivors and support."  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Support and resources
    Support and resources  In addition serving survivors of sexual assault, The Haven will offer resources for people looking for information on relational and sexual abuse.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The Haven to host open house Friday

In a quiet corner of the Campus Center Friday, the William & Mary community will come together to mark the opening of The Haven, a place where survivors of sexual assault may find support, advocacy and empowerment.

“Above all, our center seeks to remove barriers between survivors and support,” said Donna Haygood-Jackson Ed.D. ‘88, the university’s director of care support services. “With the cooperation of trained staff and student advocates, our center creates a comprehensive link between individuals and the College’s existing support network.”

The opening of The Haven is one of many efforts being undertaken this year by dedicated individuals who are also members of the newly formed Task Force on Preventing Sexual Assault and Harassment at William & Mary.

{{youtube:medium:left|EKcH9BT2BJE, Student Assembly video on The Haven}}

Chaired by Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler, the task force is comprised of students, faculty and staff from across the university, all of whom already work on some aspect of these issues.

William & Mary’s Title IX coordinator and chief compliance officer, Kiersten Boyce, who is responsible for ensuring that the institution takes appropriate steps to prevent sexual assault and other forms of sexual harassment as well as for overseeing response to all reported incidents, is a member of the task force. Additional members range from the chief of police to health promotion specialists to leaders from the faculty and student assemblies.

“The task force is giving us the opportunity to bring together those people whose professional and service involvements on campus touch on some aspect of this very complicated topic,” said Ambler. “These are colleagues who really care about this issue, who have been working to address the problem of sexual violence and harassment throughout their careers and now are sitting around a table together, looking at the big picture and sharing expertise. That’s both valuable and absolutely essential to the success of our efforts.”

“The scope of work involved in preventing, detecting and remediating sexual assault is massive and rapidly growing,” Boyce added. “This task force is positioned to move us forward on all fronts.”

A continuation

President Taylor Reveley, who formed the task force, charged it with coming up with recommendations in four areas: campus climate, prevention and education, training for faculty and staff, and investigation and adjudication. The recommendations are due to Reveley by June 30, 2015.

“Sexual assault and harassment do particularly insidious damage to a safe and supportive campus environment,” said Reveley in a Sept. 4 campus email. “These evils afflict colleges and universities across the country. In response on our campus, William & Mary meets the requirements of federal and state law, as we are obliged to do, but more important we satisfy our own high standards of concern for one another and for honorable, ethical behavior in our dealings with each other.”

The task force first met in September, and, at that meeting, shared information on ongoing and recent efforts relating to sexual assault. Some of the more important actions are outlined in a summary prepared by the Office of Compliance & Policy, available online. Other efforts include an improved online reporting portal for student concerns, a campus culture audit conducted by Student Affairs on the use of alcohol among students, resolutions on gender climate and sexual assault education passed by the Faculty Assembly and Inter-Fraternity Council, respectively, and dialogue and informational opportunities offered through the Women’s Network.

Ambler told the task force members that they were “stepping into a fast-flowing river that William & Mary must navigate with skill and in real time, even as the task force moves forward with deliberate and thorough consideration of multiple issues."

“We are working in a dynamic environment,” said Ambler, “the momentum of which inspires us at every turn to do our best work for the students who call this place home.”

Although recommendations are not due until next June, the task force’s members will not wait on continuing their efforts to be responsive to the problem of sexual assault and harassment.

“We have many initiatives underway, such as educational programming and outreach to increase awareness of resources and policies,” said Boyce. “We are coordinating these initiatives through the task force, but moving forward without delay.”

Climate and policy

One of the issues that the task force is already tackling is campus climate. Two weeks ago, a survey on that topic was sent to all William & Mary students – both undergraduate and graduate, full- and part-time. The results of that survey will be used by the task force’s subcommittee on campus climate as its members consider how to focus their prevention and education efforts, and also to identify the best instruments for data collection in the future.

“That, I imagine, will be part of our recommendation to the president,” said Ambler. “How do we in a systematic, ongoing way keep our finger on the pulse of the campus climate with regard to sexual violence.”

The task force is also examining W&M’s sexual misconduct policy and procedures – from the definition of consent to how the university conducts investigations. William & Mary is one of more than 85 universities nationwide whose sexual assault policies and procedures are under review by the Office of Civil Rights.

“There is no doubt that colleges and universities across the country are scrutinizing their efforts to combat sexual violence on campus, taking into account evolving federal law as well as expectations placed on institutions under Title IX. William & Mary is no exception,” said Ambler. “That said, an institutional commitment to addressing the problem of sexual assault on campus is not new for us – professional staff, programs and financial resources have long been dedicated to education, prevention, victim support, investigation and adjudication.”

Last week, Ambler sent proposed changes to W&M’s sexual misconduct policy to the campus community for public comment. The changes are reflective of intense exploration and conversation that occurred during a two-day summit on sexual assault held on campus this summer and many months of work by the Dean of Students Office and Boyce.

The task force's website offers meeting minutes, links to campus resources and additional information.At the beginning of October, several members of the task force -- Boyce, David Gilbert, associate dean of students/director of student conduct, and Cynthia Ward, professor of law – participated in a panel at the W&M Law School on the same topic. Among the issues addressed by the panel was whether or not affirmative consent guidelines akin to those passed recently in California would work well on campus if passed by the Virginia General Assembly.

“That is not terribly different in application than what our behavioral expectations are,” Gilbert explained to the crowd. “But, I’ve heard Oberlin College and others required a few years ago verbal consent all along the way -- may I kiss you, may I put my hand on your leg, etc. -- all the way down the line. I never thought that approach was really a good match with how human beings, and particularly students, behave. So that is the challenge, finding a policy that is understood by students and that is realistic.”

Because the law panel session was so successful, the task force is planning to repeat it on the main W&M campus in November, said Ambler. Members of the task force will be involved in other such special events and programs throughout the year, even as they continue working on this issue in the context of their individual roles as administrators, faculty and student leaders.

“You’ll see members of the task force going about the business of education, prevention, response, adjudication because that’s what we do,” she said. “The task force’s role is really identifying places where we could do more or expand or do better and to develop some recommendations for the president on how to move William & Mary to the next level.”

Boyce agreed, adding that “the task force can produce recommendations with broad support more quickly and effectively than its individual members working alone.”

Throughout the year, the task force will continue to seek feedback from the William & Mary community, both through focus groups and surveys as well as a form that will be available on the group’s recently launched website. The website offers meeting minutes, links to campus resources and additional information on the efforts of the task force.

“We want to be very open and transparent about what we are doing, and we are actively seeking campus and community input,” said Ambler.

W&M’s sense of community is the university’s greatest strength, she added, and everyone in it has a role to play in this effort.

“We need to take advantage of that and empower members of the William & Mary community not to be bystanders, to step in before situations become dangerous and to take action out of a sense of shared responsibility -- to care about each other,” said Ambler.

Welcoming, safe, inclusive

By the time the report is due to Reveley in June, Ambler hopes that the task force will have identified any gaps in campus efforts related to sexual assault and harassment and will have produced specific, practical proposals for closing those gaps.

“Then, we can really pull the weave of that safety net tighter and tighter,” she said. “Ultimately, what we want is for this to be a place that not only is safe but feels safe for students.”

The Haven, which will host an open house from 3 to 6 p.m. Friday, aims to be part of bringing William & Mary closer to that goal.

Haygood-Jackson worked closely with a group of students to design and name the space – located in Campus Center room 166 – so that it would be welcoming, safe and inclusive. In addition to serving survivors of sexual assault, the space will also offer resources for people looking for information on relational and sexual abuse.

Trained student volunteers will work in the resource area of the center, and clients may also set up confidential, one-on-one appointments with Haygood-Jackson.

“We welcome all who may be struggling with questions or issues and are here to guide them through their first steps,” said Haygood-Jackson. “The Haven provides confidential education, advocacy and acceptance for anyone seeking guidance on relational abuse, while understanding that a diverse array of students may walk through our doors.

“We serve survivors, those who stand beside them, and those ready to learn more.”

Suzanne Seurattan contributed to this story.