Students Create Proposal to Improve University Response to Sexual Assault

At many universities across the country, far too many college students are not able to feel safe and the University of Richmond is no exception. We live in a world where young women are told that they should never walk alone at night, that they should carry with them some form of defense at all times, and that they have to be more vigilant than men at all times because they do not have a reasonable expectation of safety.

From the moment that they arrive on campus, female college students are told over and over again that there is a danger known as the college rape culture, and that this culture does not stop at graduation. They are given information on what to do if they are assaulted, but in a disturbing number of instances, the victims are too afraid or ashamed to report what happened to them.

While organizations like Spiders for Spiders, Women in Living and Learning, and Students Creating Opportunities, Pride, and Equality (SCOPE), work nobly to raise awareness and try to stop the problem before it happens, many women are overlooked after they have been assaulted. That’s why graduating seniors Gemma Pansch and Whitney Schwalm have developed a proposal for the university to take a stand to help victims in a more concentrated and dedicated manner.

Recently, their petition on Change.org, which calls for an overhaul of the current  sexual assault protocol, has appeared all over Richmond students’ social media feeds. Over the course of the past year, the two girls have worked to create a proposal for the establishment of the Center for Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Services.

Schwalm said “I have wanted to work on a project like this since my sophomore year here. That year I had a number of experiences with sexual assault not only in my own life with my family, but also with some people very close to me on campus so I got to see the whole process, and it became very evident to me that the resources available aren’t adequate.”

Pansch also said, “I know several people who withdrew from the university because of sexual assault.”

The proposal, which is the culmination of Pansch and Schwalm’s healthcare and society capstone project, calls for an in-depth analysis of the problem of sexual assault on campus. According to the proposal, the number of cases typically reported is unrepresentative of the actual cases that occur in a given year.

“We don’t fully understand the scope of the problem, and the university has not taken any action to evaluate it.” –Whitney Schwalm

According to University of Richmond Title IX coordinator Kerry Fankhauser, the university received 49 reports of sexual assault in 2014, but a closer estimate to the actual number of cases is as high as 150. She added that while the university received 14 reports of rape, it is believed that the actual number of cases is about 50 in an eight-month period.

“We don’t fully understand the scope of the problem, and the university has not taken any action to evaluate it,” Schwalm said. “Our expectation is that the university will establish a taskforce to evaluate the problem.”

After the assessment of the problem, the proposal calls for the concentration of university wellness services into one building in order to “reduce the possibility of a student feeling stigmatized from walking into our center.” This would allow students to feel safer when reporting violent acts in a fragile time in their lives. This center would also provide a base for the several on-campus organizations that work to address these issues to collaborate and mobilize, as well as to offer information to the community about these issues.

Thus far, the plan has received interest from Westhampton College, support from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and Beth Curry, the University’s Coordinator for Sexual Misconduct Education and Advocacy. In the coming weeks, Pansch and Schwalm hope to work with President Ayers, President-Elect Crutcher and the Board of Trustees to begin the implementation of this plan.

“There are people on this campus who feel frustrated. We currently have no idea how big that frustration is.” Schwalm said. “I think that once we establish a very supportive environment where people can access the resources they need and won’t be turned away, and they’re not being pressured to do one thing or another, then we can build better relationships and a better situation for everyone on campus.”

If you wish to sign the petition in support of these students’ efforts, please do so here. Additionally, view the proposal in its entirety here.

Contact Forum assistant lead writer Dylan McAuley at dylan.mcauley@richmond.edu.

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