William & Mary

Task force focuses W&M on understanding and combating sexual assault

  • Task force at work:
    Task force at work:  The task force spent nearly 10 months working to find facts and make recommendations in four areas: campus climate, prevention and education, training for faculty and staff, and investigation and adjudication.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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“I’ve been sexually assaulted and …”

This quote is at the top of a new poster that has been placed across campus and in all residence halls as part of an effort to increase awareness about resources at William & Mary for victims of sexual violence. The poster goes on to provide specific information for anyone who needs medical attention, wants to have a confidential conversation, or wants to make a report.

Improved communication, including a comprehensive website designed to be a digital hub for anyone with questions about Title IX or sexual assault, is part of a list of immediate action items being implemented following a review by William & Mary’s Task Force on Preventing Sexual Assault and Harassment. This summer, the task force submitted to President Taylor Reveley its findings, including a comprehensive list of recommendations for strengthening and expanding William & Mary’s efforts.

“The task force heard too often that students weren’t sure where to go or who to contact either to report sexual misconduct or to find additional information,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler, who served as chair of the task force. “In fact, we learned that a very small percentage of those who had experienced sexual violence actually reported the incident to the university. With improved communication and more robust, visible resources – The Haven, for example, opened last October as a center for advocacy and support and serves as a place for confidential reporting – we hope to reduce barriers and encourage more students to seek help when and if they need it, for themselves or for a friend.”

The task force, formed by Reveley in September 2014, spent nearly 10 months working to find facts and make recommendations in four areas: campus climate, prevention and education, training for faculty and staff, and investigation and adjudication.

Click for a larger versionIn addition to the improved website and expanded communications efforts, the university has made several changes already in response to the task force report and recommendations, including adding a new Title IX investigator position (to assist the Title IX coordinator) and creating a permanent committee to continue the work of the task force. William & Mary is also adding a new full-time position to support sexual assault education and prevention efforts campus-wide (for students, faculty and staff).  Further, a summer re-organization in the Dean of Students Office is making possible the hiring of a coordinator for The Haven – that person will work full-time during the academic years to train and supervise volunteers and oversee the center. The university has also implemented revisions to its sexual misconduct policies and procedures, including moving from a hearing-based adjudication model to an investigative/administrative resolution model for responding to complaints.

“I am very grateful to the members of the task force and its subcommittees for their extremely hard, conscientious work,” Reveley said in a message to campus. “The task force’s 21 members -- students, faculty and staff -- were drawn from across the university and led by Student Affairs VP Ginger Ambler. They tackled pertinent issues in all their complexity and produced meaningful recommendations about how those of us at W&M can do better.”

“The task force report, now available on the university’s website, describes our progress over the last year and provides a road map for continued progress,” Reveley added. “It is significant that the task force did not wait to finish its work before beginning to recommend remedial steps.”

“Sexual violence afflicts society generally, including campuses – high school, college and university -- across the country,” Reveley said. “It will take all of us working together to combat it at William & Mary. This is an important reality: the job is not someone else’s to do; it’s for each of us and all of us, students, faculty and staff.  This is the only way serious, lasting change will occur.  No one has a pass to stand on the sidelines while others do the hard work of effecting that change.”

The overarching recommendations

Throughout the year, the members of the task force met as both a full committee and in subcommittees, monitored the national conversation on sexual assault and harassment and engaged in professional development so that they might more effectively navigate the issues at hand.

Each subcommittee submitted its own set of recommendations, but the task force listed five overarching recommendations:

  • Centralize oversight and responsibility: This recommendation would give the Title IX coordinator the central oversight responsibility for addressing sexual violence on campus.
  • Create a permanent coordinating committee: This committee would take up the work of the task force and continue it in a sustained and focused way.
  • Consider enhancing the role of the violence education and prevention committee to advise other key offices across the institution, catalog education and prevention activities, identify gaps or areas for improvement and ensure the delivery of “core content” such as the importance of consent.
  • Develop a three-to-five year strategic plan for the prevention  and response of sexual assault and harassment: The plan would help W&M further examine and prioritize the task force’s recommendations and make decisions about which ones to implement and when. The task force recommends that the proposed coordinating committee, working directly with the Title IX coordinator, develop this plan.
  • Ensure adequate resources: The funding would support the task force’s recommended education and training efforts and allow for the addition of three new professional staff positions over time: a full-time sexual assault educator/prevention specialist, a second full-time investigator for the Office of Compliance, and a position in the Office of Student Conduct to assist the director with training of all those who have responsibility within the system. In addition, the W&M Police Department added certification training to an existing position so the department now has two full-time crime-prevention specialists.
Campus feedback

As part of its work, the task force solicited feedback from the campus community through faculty, staff and student focus groups and a campus climate survey.

The survey, developed by eduOutcomes, was distributed to every enrolled student – graduate and undergraduate – at William & Mary in October 2014.

“To our knowledge, William & Mary is the first Virginia institution – and one of few nationally – to both collect and disseminate campus climate survey data related to sexual assault,” said Ambler. “It is important for us, as a task force and as an institution, to be leading the way in this regard.”

A total of 2,660 undergraduate and graduate students – about 32 percent of the population – responded to the survey, which asked about personal experiences and observed behavior of fellow students and W&M employees since enrolling at the university. The survey also inquired about Title IX awareness, the grievance process and campus climate.

According to the report, key findings include:

  • 2 percent of survey respondents reported they had been raped since enrolling at W&M. Only 12 percent of these students had filed a grievance with the university. 4 percent of undergraduate women who responded to the survey reported they had been raped.
  • 18 percent of all respondents reported they had experienced some form of physical sexual misconduct (e.g., unwanted sexual touching, grabbing and pinching, as well as rape).  Among undergraduate women and men, these percentages are 28 percent and 11 percent respectively.
  • 46 percent of all respondents reported they had experienced some form of sexual misconduct (physical or non-physical, including unwanted sexual jokes, comments and gestures; unwanted sexual touching, grabbing and pinching; rape; indecent exposure; and requests for sexual favors). Only 3 percent of these students had filed a grievance with the university.
  • Members of social fraternities and sororities reported they had experienced and observed various types of sexual misconduct at considerably higher levels than unaffiliated students.

Although the survey provided a lot of information on many aspects of sexual assault at William & Mary, it had some limitations, said Jodi Fisler, chair of the task force’s campus climate subcommittee. For instance, the survey did not ask about the role of alcohol in instances of experienced or observed sexual misconduct.  It also did not ask about class year, sexual orientation or citizenship status.  And the survey asked very little about the circumstances under which sexual harassment and assault occur. Because the survey was designed by an outside group, William & Mary was not at liberty to modify the questions.

As with any survey, Fisler said, it is important to understand context when looking at the numbers. For example, given the 1.8 percent margin of error, it would not be accurate to simply extrapolate from the results that 2 percent of the entire student body at W&M has been raped. Fisler said the true percentage most likely falls somewhere between 0.2 percent and 3.8 percent.

Although the survey instrument did not capture everything the task force wanted to learn, members felt compelled to move ahead with administering it, Ambler said. It was critical that the committee’s recommendations were grounded in a clearer understanding of students’ experiences. Student Affairs, she added, is already using results of the survey to influence their outreach efforts. For example, members of the task force will be meeting with all chapter advisors of all fraternities and sororities this month to discuss the climate survey results and ways advisors particularly can help in shaping organizational culture, as well as in supporting their members who are experiencing sexual assault/harassment.

“A similar convening of W&M fraternity and sorority members will have occurred several days earlier, including in-depth discussions facilitated by a professional consultant,” Ambler said. “It is clear from the climate survey that women and men who are in sororities and fraternities experience or witness sexual misconduct at rates greater than non-affiliated students. We are very concerned by that and we expect the fraternity and sorority community will be as well.”  

Actions taken

In addition to soliciting campus feedback, the task force worked with members of the campus community to complete a number of actions in 2014-15. For example, the Title IX office compiled and published online data regarding the number of reported sexual assaults between 2011 and 2014.

William & Mary, as part of its Global Film Festival, was the first university in the country to host a screening of “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about sexual violence on college campuses. The task force, together with the Student Assembly, provided funds to bring the film’s main protagonists, Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, to campus in February to take part in a campus discussion and meet with students. Earlier this year, all members of the William & Mary Police department completed specialized training on understanding the trauma associated with victims of sexual violence.

“Since my work on the task force, WMPD identified and had its officers complete two training initiatives to help develop and solidify needed competencies within our department – Investigation of Sex Crimes for Campus Police and Public Safety and Bystander Intervention training,” said W&M Police Chief Deborah Cheesebro. “It is critical that we provide police services in a manner that not only keeps people safe, but also ensures that people feel safe in their environment.” 

This summer, William & Mary also moved to make important changes to the way it resolves complaints of sexual assaults.  The task force investigation and adjudication subcommittee explored the advantages and disadvantages of the different resolution models, recognizing certain benefits of a traditional hearing model, and other benefits of a more investigation-focused model.  After careful consideration, William & Mary is moving away from reliance on volunteer hearing panels to resolve these cases, said W&M’s Title IX Coordinator Kiersten Boyce, who also serves as the university’s chief compliance officer.

Under the revised procedure, a Title IX Review Team consisting of the Title IX coordinator, the Dean of Students, and W&M Chief of Police convene immediately upon a report being received to help take protective measures and determine the best manner of resolution.  Following an investigation by trained administrators, the Dean of Students determines whether a policy violation has occurred.  To ensure a fair and thorough consideration, both parties to an investigation have the opportunity to review and respond to a preliminary investigation report, prior to it being finalized, and have the right to a pre-determination meeting with the dean, Boyce said.  Both parties also continue to have the right to appeal to the provost, she added. 

“We are confident that this revised process will allow complaints to be resolved more promptly, expertly, and equitably,” Boyce said. 

Other actions during the year included:

  • Campus panel discussion on William & Mary's Sexual Assault and Harassment Policy
  • “Gender-Based Discrimination and Violence at W&M: An Open Conversation,” a campus-wide evening of conversation in large and small groups, led by students on the task force
  • Online training (sexual violence/harassment prevention and reporting obligations) completed by 100 percent of faculty and staff
  • Sexual Misconduct Policy revisions
  • Study of campus sexual misconduct adjudication and resolution models
  • Review of policies, sanctions, procedures, records and access
  • Participation in legislative hearings regarding campus policies related to sexual violence on campuses
  • Coordination with the Governor’s Task Force on Campus Sexual Violence
  • Creation of the Task Force website to keep the community informed and solicit feedback
  • Presentations and discussions about the task force’s work with on- and off-campus groups
  • Compilation and sharing of Sexual Assault Incident Data from 2011-2014 online by the Title IX office
  • Comprehensive inventory of existing education and prevention efforts
  • Support for other campus initiatives, including the opening and operation of The Haven.

Although the task force has met its charge, the work that its members began will be ongoing as their recommendations are explored and implemented. The report was just the first step in that process.

“As a colleague affirmed at a national Title IX summit recently, it is important for institutions first to ‘know our truth,’” Ambler said. “This report is a significant step forward in the direction of improving our campus climate, enhancing resources and support for students and affirming that W&M can and will be a leader in working to end campus sexual violence.”