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Sunday, May 9, 2021

Western’s sexual assault prevention efforts lacking, administrators agree

Prevention and Wellness Services offers pamphlets and resources to students. Some former and current staff say prevention efforts at Western are not given enough support or attention from administrators. // Western Front file photo

By Haley Ausbun, Asia Fields and Rebekah Way

Some former and current employees familiar with Western’s prevention efforts say it’s doing the bare minimum to prevent sexual violence. They say due to limited resources and busy leadership, Western’s focus has just been on meeting state and federal requirements.

Note: CASAS is referring students to DVSAS for the summer.

“When you’re passionate about something like sexual assault [prevention], you don’t just want to check the box,” said Katie Plewa Olvera, a former coordinator of Consultation and Sexual Assault Services at Western. “I feel like because of the lack of resources sometimes we have to do that.”

Western’s work group on sexual violence response and prevention has been discussing many of the same projects for years, meeting minutes show, and progress on rolling out efforts has been slow.

Most of the group’s work has been focused on meeting federal or state requirements, such as making an online training course available to students. Experts on prevention have recommended that colleges have more robust prevention efforts, which are proven to be more effective than one-time trainings.

Sue Guenter-Schlesinger, vice provost for equal opportunity, Title IX coordinator and Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, has been leading the work group. The Equal Opportunity Office has been understaffed for almost a year, and Guenter-Schlesinger said she will be able to focus more on policy and prevention once those positions are filled.

Plewa Olvera, who left her role as CASAS coordinator in 2016 but still teaches at Western, said a lack of resources has left most preventative work to student volunteers and a few overworked staff.

“It kind of seemed like there was no broad commitment to sexual assault prevention. It fell on a group of less than 20 people,” Plewa Olvera said.

Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services Melynda Huskey recognized understaffing and funding throughout sexual assault services were issues, which she said she hopes to address.

Western’s policy on sexual misconduct states it is committed to preventing sexual misconduct, has a comprehensive sexual assault education program, and offers support and resources for survivors.

The Western Front does not name survivors of sexual violence without their permission.

Read the other stories in this series

Sexual assault survivors frustrated with Western investigations despite changes to process
Western expels second student in five years for sexual misconduct, but he was allowed to graduate
Behind the series: Unresponsive administrators, incomplete records

Experts say online prevention course is not enough

Western requires students to take a mandatory online educational course called Haven, which includes lessons on consent, sexual and relationship violence, risk reduction, bystander intervention and campus policies and services.

Some survivors and experts question the effectiveness of a one-time program.

During one survivor’s first quarter at Western in 2015, she said a student she had considered a friend sexually assaulted her.

She said after the student sexually assaulted her, he yelled at her saying Haven required him to get consent, according Office of Student Life records obtained through public records request.

The survivor said he then unsuccessfully tried to use her fingerprint to unlock her phone, so he could make it appear she consented by sending himself a text, according to records.

The student was found responsible for sexual misconduct and was eventually expelled by the appeals board. But the survivor said it was clear he didn’t know what consent was. And she doesn’t think the university’s prevention efforts or conduct process, which administrators say was designed to be educational, taught him.

“He didn’t understand what he did was wrong,” the survivor said in an interview.

Plewa Olvera, who now has her own private practice as a psychologist and works on campus as an adjunct psychology instructor, said it’s hard to see what administrators are really doing to prevent sexual assault, other than the Haven course.

“It’s not obvious to me from an instructor’s standpoint, and I’m knowledgeable about it and passionate about it,” she said. “If I’m missing any of the university’s actions—if they’re doing anything—it’s not being highlighted. It’s not being seen.”

The Clery Act, a federal law, requires universities to offer training for all new students and employees. Guenter-Schlesinger said Western was a leader in this area because it made Haven mandatory in fall 2015, although the Office for Civil Rights was recommending making trainings mandatory at the time.

“If I’m missing any of the university’s actions—if they’re doing anything—it’s not being highlighted. It’s not being seen.”

Katie Plewa Olvera, former CASAS coordinator

A mandatory Haven refresher training is expected to begin in fall at President Sabah Randhawa’s request, according to minutes from a May meeting of the work group on sexual violence prevention and response.

Colleges should not rely on educational programs alone to prevent sexual violence, according to a 2014 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report recommended that colleges also strengthen existing campus policies and support services, increase negative consequences for perpetrators and work to decrease social norms that allow sexual violence to continue in college communities.

According to CDC’s report, brief educational programs on their own may increase awareness of the sexual assault, but are unlikely to change behaviors developed over a lifetime that are associated with perpetration of sexual violence.

Hypermasculinity and belief in rape myths, such as believing the way someone dresses signifies consent, are behaviors strongly associated with perpetrators of sexual assault, according to a 2009 study in the journal of Trauma, Violence & Abuse. Other problematic beliefs include that women are to be pursued, viewing hesitation and rejection as a challenge or resistance to sexual advances as insincere, according to the study.

Julie Reimann, a licensed mental health counselor and former counselor at Western, said there needs to be more education about consent and healthy sex early on. Reimann said college is a late time to educate students on boundaries.

Huskey said Haven is a law-complying building block for Western’s prevention process.

“Research suggests that is the need is a really robust, research-based curriculum that addresses consent and empowers people to self-advocate in all kinds of relationship contexts,” Huskey said. “I think [Haven has] an important job. I just think we can’t stop there.”

Huskey said she’d like to see more ongoing messages about sexual violence prevention and response, instead of just one-time statements, but also recognized the challenges of consistently communicating to a large population.

“Passive messaging is just one strategy and you can’t rely on the whole poster, social media, that kind of thing,” Huskey said.

A task force was formed at Western in response to the release of Obama-era guidelines for colleges on handling sexual violence in 2011. The task force created posters, small handouts and wallet-size cards with information about resources for survivors.

Guenter-Schlesinger said this summer, the Equal Opportunity Office will be working on new handouts, posters and changing its website to make the process more clear and accessible with the help of the university communications and marketing office.

Ali Brenes, who was president of Planned Parenthood Generation until she graduated in June, said university websites and other communication about sexual violence policies use jargon.

Just having a campus policy that addresses sexual assault doesn’t mean it’s enforced, understood by students or accessible to everyone, said Laurie Graham, a social work doctoral candidate at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who previously worked in a rape crisis center.

“I don’t know how realistic it is for us to think that students or faculty or staff are really going to read these policies in their full, legal speak and if that will be a great resource for people,” Graham said.

Graham said universities should assess how the campus community consumes information, whether that’s on social media or with physical informative flyers and cards, and tailor education strategies to match this.

A 2014 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified the most effective sexual assault prevention strategies for higher institutions have consistent messages about campus policies and programs surrounding sexual violence that are communicated from the individual to broader community levels.

What has Western’s work group done?

In 2015, Western’s work group on sexual violence prevention and response was formed from a previous task force started in 2011 in response to new federal guidelines on sexual assault.

The work group is made up of representatives from the Equal Opportunity Office, University Police, Student Health Center, Athletics, Prevention and Wellness Services, Dean of Students Office, Counseling Center, University Residences and the President’s Office, according to the website. Associated Students representatives have also attended meetings.

The Equal Opportunity Office’s website states that the work group meets regularly throughout the academic year. Guenter-Schlesinger said the work group has interpreted that to mean at least once a quarter.

A public records request for all meeting minutes from 2015 to 2018 shows while meetings occurred almost monthly around the time Western came under a federal investigation in 2015, there were large gaps of time between later meeting minutes. No minutes were provided for between September 2016 and February 2017, and the next minutes after that came from February of the following year. The group met more frequently in 2018.

The group is now in its third year, but many of the topics on recent agendas have carried over for years, according to the meeting minutes. Most meetings are spent discussing meeting federal and state requirements.

Guenter-Schlesinger said the work group devotes some meetings to training on sexual assault and how to work with survivors, and minutes are not taken at those meetings. She was unable to clarify when those instances may have occurred.

The minutes also show most meetings are missing a significant number of members.

What the meetings have mostly focused on:
• Haven (required by Clery Act; Office of Civil Rights recommended making mandatory)
• Sexual assault campus climate survey (required by 2015 state legislation)
• Memorandum of understanding with law enforcement (required by 2015 state legislation)
• Compliance with the federal investigation into Western
• Revising policy (to be compliant with federal guidelines)

The group worked on putting out a campus sexual violence climate survey, which was required by state legislation passed in 2015. Western’s survey had a response rate of seven percent and incomplete surveys, and Guenter-Schlesinger called the findings “unreliable” at a February 2017 meeting.

Hiring a University Police victim advocate has been discussed since April 2016, after an external investigation into Western’s response to a student threatening to lynch the Associated Students president over Yik Yak. The investigation was done by the University of Washington police chief, who recommended hiring a full-time advocate.

Administrators responded saying they would immediately evaluate the option of doing this, and set a deadline of spring 2016, according to an email obtained through public records request.

Now two years later, the university authorized funding for a half-time employee for this position, University Police Chief Darin Rasmussen said in a June email.

The University of Washington’s police force has a full-time victim advocate who offers confidential support for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking and other safety concerns.

“Hopefully this will occur in the near future, clearing the way to move forward for fall quarter,” Rasmussen said in the email.

A current Western employee familiar with prevention efforts, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for their career, said efforts too often assume the wheel needs to be reinvented. They said Western should look more into what other institutions have done that were successful.

They also said prevention efforts have been slowed down because busy administrators are the ones in charge of them. It would be more effective for this work to be delegated to people who can build coalitions among various experts and the campus and wider community, they said.

Guenter-Schlesinger said once the Equal Opportunity Office is back to full staffing, she will be able to focus more on prevention and policy. The office has been operating without full staffing since September 2017, when the assistant director and deputy Title IX coordinator left. The position was upgraded and posted in June, nine months later. Cocke said it took this long because of “personnel and administrative reasons.”

Students not involved in planning

Former Counseling Center Director Shari Robinson, who left in June, said she wanted to see broader student representation on the work group, according the minutes from the March meeting. The only students in the group are Associated Students Board members, who Robinson said are overtaxed by serving on work groups.

Western’s work group heard from representatives from the student club Planned Parenthood Generation in March.

Brenes, the president of Planned Parenthood Generation at the time, said while some of the work group members were receptive, most were not. She said some of the administrators were on their phones as students talked.

“It felt like we were invited to present the image of being heard but it was very clear that wasn’t happening,” Brenes said.

Administrators are afraid to open up to criticism from students, which results in energy spent defending the status quo and proving enough has been done already, instead of trying to improve efforts, the current Western employee familiar with prevention efforts said.

They said students and administrators need to be brought to the same table to work from their common ground of wanting student safety. But this needs to be facilitated by someone who appears neutral, instead of having administrators try to start these conversations, they said.

Guenter-Schlesinger said she would look into increasing student involvement in the work group, and Huskey and Randhawa discussed working with Planned Parenthood Generation and other student groups organizing around this issue.

The Equal Opportunity Office also hired Annie Gordon, previous Associated Students vice president for student life, to work with the office part-time to aid in the office’s outreach efforts, Guenter-Schlesinger said.

Prevention efforts rely on unpaid students

Plewa Olvera said most of the prevention work on campus hasn’t come from the university work group, but from student advocates through CASAS and Western’s Empowerment and Violence Education (now combined).

She said it was either that or just her and the men’s violence specialist running trainings.

“[The work group] talked about these federal guidelines and talked about Haven. And the rest of it was falling on this group of 10 to 12 students, like they’re going to be the ones to educate the entire campus,” she said.

While CASAS advocates are paid for required training, they are not paid for the hours they work with survivors or for their education efforts across campus. Plewa Olvera said this should change, although she knows there are a lack of resources.

“These are really dedicated students, so they’re going to do it regardless. But I think for anyone who is passionate about this topic, that passion sometimes leads them to be sort of taken advantage of,” Plewa Olvera said. “They deserve to be compensated.”

Randhawa sent out a campus-wide email in February about the Larry Nassar sexual abuse trials, which he called a “wake-up call” for the university be vigilant about prevention and response to sexual assault.

One student responded to the email, which was obtained through public records request, and said Western was relying too much on students to do this work.

“There are students who are working incredibly hard to make this school safer and yet they have so little support from Western,” the email read.

The student said the support students do have are from staff and other student volunteers who are stretched thin and undercompensated.

The email said student volunteers have “full loads of work and school on top of fighting against people who have full time jobs being paid to ensure that the school’s reputation goes undamaged, at the risk of our safety as students.”

Resources stretched thin, administrators hope to fix

Despite high rates of sexual violence among college-aged populations, offices and staff devoted to supporting survivors at Western are in stretched thin.

Haven is required to be completed around a month after the student starts school. Aggregate data from Haven shows four percent, or 185 of the students who took Haven in 2016-17, said they were subject to unwanted sexual contact since they came to Western.

Of the 4,625 students who took Haven in 2016-17, 35 percent said they had been subjected to unwanted sexual contact before coming to Western.

Plewa Olvera said she feels there is not enough staffing to support survivors. She said as CASAS coordinator, she was responsible for working on prevention and being there for survivors and sometimes felt neither was getting as much attention as it deserved.

Huskey said Western came out of the recession with a thin bench, sometimes having too much placed on the shoulders of one staff member.

“And as the institution has grown, we haven’t always grown the base of people,” she said.

Other universities have sexual assault and violence response centers, Plewa Olvera said. She’d like to see Western establish a center where counselors trained in trauma, people doing prevention education, peer advocates and health educators would be in one place.

“If I had it my way, [CASAS] would be standalone with multiple staff members to truly commit to every single piece that needs to be addressed,” Plewa Olvera said.

She also said she wants CASAS to be more visible on campus, rather than being pushed to hidden areas on campus. CASAS has an office at the top of Old Main and had to move to another office there spring quarter because of the construction in the Viking Union.

Counseling Center in Old Main. // Photo by Kevin Lake

Plewa Olvera said she felt CASAS was undervalued when she worked as coordinator and that because of that, survivors’ voices weren’t being heard.

She left her position at CASAS so she could work with people on a long-term basis and see them heal.

Julie Reimann left Western in 2016 after more than seven years as a counselor for a similar reason.

“I didn’t really feel much support within Western to really address [sexual violence] as a problem,” she said.

Reimann said she saw a lot of survivors while at Western, but because of high demand for Counseling Center services, she had to refer them out.

Reimann now has a private practice as a licensed mental health counselor in Bellingham specializing in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. She said Counseling Center staff could benefit from more training on working with survivors, especially as they are often a frontline for connecting them to resources.

Guenter-Schlesinger agreed that all people interacting with survivors should be taught approaches that address the aftermath of trauma and promote healing.

Huskey said there is a national shortage of counseling staff, national crisis psychiatrists and nurse practitioners who can manage the medical needs of people experiencing mental illness.

“We’re really stretched to find the right number and kind of staff and to attract them to the college environment, rather than the private practice environment,” Huskey said. “That’s on my mind a lot.”

Reimann agreed there are larger issues playing into the lack of resources for survivors, but at the end of the day, she feels Western isn’t doing enough.

“If the Counseling Center cannot consistently support survivors in a trauma-informed way, then the university has failed them,” she said.

Reimann said the center’s priorities are driven by the administration and noted that only one staff members’ interests include “women’s issues” on the Counseling Center’s website. She recognized sexual assault isn’t limited to women, but said the university shows a lot of support for men’s resiliency programs and more is needed for other groups affected by sexual assault.

“I still think there are implications for the university showing very visible support for a traditionally privileged group, while other less privileged groups are fighting for adequate support,” she said.

Resources for survivors seeking physical and medical healthcare services are also stretched thin.

The Student Health Center offers same-day appointments for students seeking sexually transmitted infection screenings or pregnancy tests due to unwanted sexual contact, said Student Health Center Director Emily Gibson in a May email. Only two staff members, Gibson and one nurse practitioner, are trained to provide forensic medical exams for sexual assault survivors.

“The forensic exam is no charge but, because it involves approximately three hours of uninterrupted clinician time, it can be offered only when we have adequate staffing to permit a clinician and nurse support to devote that time to one patient,” Gibson said.

From 2014 to June 2018, 895 of the 5,445 students seen for reproductive health care at the Student Health Center reported they had experienced unwanted sexual activity in their lifetime, Gibson said.

The Health Center can bill screenings and tests to student accounts if a patient does not want the charges to appear on their insurance. If the student has experienced sexual assault within the previous month, the Health Center may provide the testing and necessary medication at no cost.

“We never want a student to feel they can’t afford testing in such a circumstance,” Gibson said. “But, due to the high cost of the testing and the follow up, we provide this on a case-by-case basis due to our very limited resources.”

Huskey said she hopes to propose more funding and positions for the Prevention and Wellness Services and other resources for the next biennial budget.

“Finding the spot where we meet people’s immediate expectations, while we really engage in a meaningful prevention campaign, means bringing more prevention specialists into our world,” she said.

Western’s policy on ensuring equal opportunity and prohibiting discrimination and retaliation states that every “reasonable” effort will be made by the Board of Trustees to provide necessary resources to implement policies preventing discrimination and retaliation.

Editor’s note: Melissa McCarthy contributed some information about the Student Health Center. Reporter Rebekah Way did not interview or edit content from Julie Reimann, who she has a professional relationship with.


This story is the third in a three-part series for an advanced reporting course with professor Carolyn Nielsen. Read the other stories, on investigations and sanctions.


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