Task force leads charge against sexual assault at Mason

This story was originally published in the April 13 print issue.

Months of dedication and research came to fruition March 26, when Mason president Ángel Cabrera released a report outlining the university’s strategy for tackling campus sexual assault.

The report, emailed to all students, consists of recommendations compiled by the Task Force on Sexual Assault and Interpersonal Violence that Cabrera formed in August 2014. It represents a comprehensive review of Mason offices, policies and programs related to sexual violence.

“Our responsibility is to provide a safe environment where every student can be at ease and focus on learning,” Cabrera said. “You cannot be a well-being university when half of your population or more than half your population has a potential threat. That’s something you have to deal with.”

Measures proposed in the report encompass, among other things, the formation of a new website and mandatory training for specified faculty, staff and student constituencies. The whole process will be overseen and evaluated by a Sexual Assault and Interpersonal Violence Leadership Committee.

To co-chair the task force, Cabrera appointed University Life Vice President Rose Pascarell and Kim Eby, associate provost and a women and gender studies professor.

“I knew Rose had the expertise and passion for the subject, she knows about it, she’s worked on it for a long time,” Cabrera said. “It was a no-brainer. We also wanted to have someone from the academic side of the house so the faculty is well-represented [and] this is not just something the administration is doing. A perfect duo.”

Other members included Mary Ann Sprouse, the director of Wellness, Alcohol, Violence Education Services, and Angela Hattery, director of women and gender studies. They were invited based on their knowledge of and work in the field.

Phil Abbruscato, president of Student Government, was the lone student representative.

“It was a great experience sitting on the task force as a student,” Abbruscato said. “It gave me the opportunity to help suggest ways in which we could better outreach to students and connect with them, make them aware of different programs and policies that exist or will exist in the future.”

Over the past year, the problem of sexual violence in colleges vaulted into the national spotlight, due to a string of high-profile incidents like the 2012 University of Virginia gang-rape covered in a controversial article by Rolling Stone.

Even President Barack Obama designated it a top priority: on Jan. 22, 2014, he authorized the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, and later, he helped launch the “It’s on Us” campaign to raise awareness.

“I think the social pressure that the White House task force created is making it almost impossible for schools not to do something about it, which is great,” Cabrera said.

According to WAVES, there were 77 reports of sexual assault and interpersonal violence at Mason in 2014, a 35 percent increase over the year before. The Office of Student Conduct and the University Police also collect reports, though their numbers are typically lower because many sexual assault victims choose not to file formal complaints or contact law enforcement.

“Many victims feel like if they report, it’s almost like you’re going to be victimized twice because all of a sudden, you’re going to be questioned,” Cabrera said. “Sometimes people are going to call into question whether it really happened to you, you might be accused again, or you might not even see consequences at all and you’re exposing yourself.”

When drafting its recommendations, the task force pursued three overarching goals: strengthen campus culture, increase victim reports and design a system for defining and measuring progress.

The finished four-page report lists eight objectives scheduled to be carried out by the start of the fall 2015 semester, along with several others expected to require more time.

Of the short-term goals, the Sexual Assault and Interpersonal Violence Leadership Committee represents the highest priority. Besides providing general supervision, it will determine staffing and resources and set a timeline. Many task force members will stay to serve on the committee.

Other short-term recommendations involve arranging a full-time Title IX coordinator position and delineating the duties of Campus Security Authorities and Responsible Employees. In addition, a campus climate survey, currently in its pilot phase, will be used to assess the incidence of sexual violence at Mason.

“Surveys are not perfect,” Cabrera said. “But at least… you start getting a better sense of what’s going on. If you do it every year, you can tell whether you’re improving or not.”

Hattery and Sprouse, who spearheaded the survey development, studied several national questionnaires and shared information with other schools in the state, such as Virginia Commonwealth University and James Madison University. There has been considerable talk of using standard questions to measure common areas of interest.

For the most part, though, the task force aims to create a survey specific to Mason, in order to properly address the needs of particular communities, including LGBT, international and disabled students.

“Mason has such a diverse student population,” University Life Vice President Rose Pascarell said. “We want to make sure we’re asking questions that make sense for everybody, covering topics that make sense for everybody.”

If the pilot survey is successful, an official one will be administered annually, beginning in the 2016 academic year.

The new website, another short-term goal, will integrate information on all protocols and resources related to sexual assault at Mason, similar to the Not Alone site created in conjunction with the White House task force.

“Much of the information that will go on this site already exists, but there’s not one spot,” Pascarell said. “It’ll be easy access, student-friendly, staff-friendly, faculty-friendly, kind of a one-stop shop for all the information we have.”

The long-term recommendations are organized in six categories: policies and procedures; education and training; programs and services; curriculum; outreach and communication; and assessment.

Among potential policy changes are a shift of sexual assault investigation duties from the Office of Student Conduct to Compliance, Diversity and Ethics, and the introduction of a post-hearing assessment so participants can comment on the fairness and efficiency of the conduct process.

Pascarell is especially excited about introducing a program modeled after You Have Options, which began in Ashland, Ore. as a joint program with Southern Oregon University and the Ashland Police Department that promotes victim-centered interviewing techniques in law enforcement agencies.

“One of the reasons victims don’t come forward society-wide is because they don’t tend to trust the way they’re going to be treated by law enforcement,” Pascarell said. “I actually believe [a You Have Options program] could be a game-changer on a college campus, where you’re really working collaboratively with the police… not as here’s the police and here’s victim services and here’s the educators, where everything’s kind of working toward the same goal.”

Training initiatives entail not only revising and expanding wide-ranging programs like the Emerge ally training conducted by WAVES but also fostering programs targeted at groups deemed uniquely at-risk of experiencing sexual assault or unlikely to seek support.

“We chose populations that we know are present on our campus and we know nationally have a much more difficult time with disclosure,” Pascarell said. “If you’re in a same-sex relationship and you’re a victim of sexual violence, [it’s] much harder to make that move. If you’re an undocumented student and worried about your status, much harder to make that disclosure. If you’re a man who’s been assaulted by a woman, much harder to make that disclosure.”

In terms of curriculum, the most dramatic proposal is the incorporation of bystander intervention and healthy relationship teachings into courses and orientations for first-year, transfer and graduate students.

The task force convened seven times between September and February, devising inventories of Mason’s procedures, programs and resources as well as practices used by colleges across the country. While they did some assignments and readings on their own, most of the work consisted of group discussions during the meetings.

“The biggest challenges were deciding where to put the priorities,” Angela Hattery, director of women and gender studies, said. “At the end of it, we had to decide what things we thought could be implemented immediately, what things would be implemented in the first year and what things were longer-term. And of course, there was disagreement about how urgent something is.”

One point of contention, for example, hinged on whether students should be required to take a women and gender studies course to gain an in-depth understanding of the roots of sexual violence.

“Going to events and stuff can be really impactful,” Hattery said, “but I think to really educate and influence and shift attitudes, you kind of need more than one program.”

Other members, however, viewed the idea as too narrow or impractical.

“We live in the context we live in,” Cabrera said. “To think that just through a small intervention, you’re going to change Western contemporary values on sexuality or whatever, that’s a monumental task, and if we set that as the goal, my view is we’re probably bound to fail… What we can do is create a culture in this organization that makes anything close to sexual violence absolutely unacceptable.”

The task force looks to enrich Mason’s curriculum primarily by providing teaching and research grants that would enable faculty from a range of disciplines to explore subjects related to sexual violence and gender dynamics in their courses.

Student opinions were taken into account through Abbruscato’s input, a Patriots in Action roundtable in November and an open town hall forum hosted in February.

“It was a good conversation,” said Student Government President-Elect Kushboo Bhatia, who attended the town hall. “I think everyone was on the same page about moving forward and really building a community that stands up against sexual assault and interpersonal violence and really tries to respect one another.”

The task force also consulted experts outside Mason. Most notably, Cabrera’s participation in the statewide Task Force on Combating Campus Sexual Violence created by Gov. Terry McAuliffe provided an opportunity to collaborate with officials and educators throughout Virginia.

Before sending the final copy for Cabrera’s approval, Pascarell and Eby drafted a report, which the task force spent two meetings collectively dissecting.

“We literally went through it line by line,” Hattery said. “It was very intensive work.”

In the end, members believe the task force accomplished what it intended and are satisfied with the final product.

“We want to stop sexual assault from happening, and when it does happen, we want to be able to provide as much support and resources to the victim as possible so they can continue to be a college student and get their degree,” said Mary Ann Sprouse, director of WAVES. “I think the recommendations kind of all work on each other to create this culture of safety and inclusion.”

Less certain is the impending implementation process, as programs are expanded and departments expected to shoulder increased responsibilities despite limited budgets and resources.

“[Women and gender studies is] going to be asked to do more, and we want to,” Hattery said. “The question is, will we get the support or not? And I think that’s going to be an issue for almost every office that’s affected.”

Kellie White, a junior art history major who serves as president of Mason’s Feminist Student Organization, expresses concern about whether the recommendations will translate smoothly from paper to practice.

“I completely and utterly support the pledge to end sexual assault at George Mason, it’s a wonderful thing,” White said. “But at the same time, I think some of the methods can be very superficial, because it’s very easy for individuals to say they’re investing in a cause and a movement without actually examining their own behavior, the behavior of others around them, and how they’re implicated in that themselves and it’s a larger system that’s driving this.”

As implementation begins, Pascarell welcomes student perspectives and involvement. The Sexual Assault and Interpersonal Violence Leadership Committee will contain at least two or three student representatives.

“Part of this process will be continually collecting feedback,” Pascarell said. “The thing about this issue is, if there’s anything that’s changing quickly, it’s what we’re learning about how to combat sexual violence. So, these recommendations make sense right now, but I assume they will continue to shift and evolve.”

Mason has pre-existing available resources for students who need or want them, including a 24-hour crisis hotline. WAVES offers bystander intervention workshops as well as free, confidential victims’ services.

Cabrera is optimistic that the work of the task force and others in the Mason community will lead to a shift in campus culture and attitudes. He credits Pascarell and other university experts for helping him understand the urgency of the situation.

“This is what they explained to me – and this is not their opinions, this is the data: the statistics are pretty ugly,” he said. “According to some estimates, as many as 1 in 5 women at any college will suffer some form of sexual violence or assault. Honestly, some people like to argue there is 1 in 5, 1 in 6, whatever. I don’t care about the five, the six, the seven, I care about the one.”

Photo Credit: Amy Podraza