Task force to combat sexual violence on campus

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Source - Richmond Times Dispatch

Acknowledging that universities in the past may have put their image first, Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Thursday established a task force to combat “startling and saddening” sexual violence that affects one in five women on campus.

McAuliffe said the presidents of all the state’s public colleges and universities have signed a declaration committing to “aggressively address” a national problem that he pledged Virginia will take the lead in solving.

The task force will be chaired by Attorney General Mark R. Herring, who cited a report that state lawmakers have remained on the sidelines despite an increased federal focus on Virginia campuses.

“That inaction cannot continue, and it ends now,” he said.

The task force will look at the problem “from every angle” to identify best practices to minimize risk and to foster a “survivor-centered response.”

The state will not tolerate sexual violence, Herring said, and “we will not accept a societal culture that condones it.”

Victims who come forward, Herring said, should “never feel further victimized by a response that is inadequate, suspicious or judgmental.”

The statistics are “appalling and behind each number is a story of a young person whose life has been changed forever,” Herring said.

One of those young people spoke on the state Capitol steps at the signing ceremony for the executive order establishing the task force.

“I am here because sexual assault defined my college experience,” University of Virginia graduate Emily Renda said, as it has for “thousands of other survivors.”

“Today, we are here because we know we can do better,” said Renda, who will serve on the task force.

The task force will provide “urgently needed action” to consolidate efforts statewide to “protect the next generation of scholars,” she said.

After the ceremony, Renda, who has written about being raped by another student in the fall of her first year at U.Va., said she waited too long to come forward, which she noted is the case with many survivors.

By the time she spoke up, her assailant had transferred, she said.

Renda, a May graduate who was chair of the university’s Sexual Assault Leadership Council, said U.Va. staff was supportive when she did seek help.

U.Va. is one of four Virginia universities — with James Madison University, the College of William and Mary and the University of Richmond — under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights along with about 70 other schools for their handling of sexual assault cases.

In an interview after his public remarks, McAuliffe said the task force would not be “stepping over” processes already in place for handling sexual assault but would seek to ensure that the cases are fully adjudicated.

The message to survivors is “please, don’t be scared about stepping up,” he said.

Asked about victim perceptions that universities have seemed too concerned about protecting their image, the governor said he would agree that has been a problem in the past, but “I think those days are over.”

“Nobody wants to get news out there that does not look upon the college or university kindly or not in a positive light, but that’s behind us,” he said.

Virginia is taking the lead on a national problem, McAuliffe said. “Everything is going to be in full sunshine. … Everybody gets it. One in five women are sexually assaulted. It’s time to do something about it.”

Among those attending the event was Rosemary Trible, wife of Christopher Newport University President Paul Trible, who McAuliffe noted has “dedicated her life to helping survivors of sexual assault.”

Trible, who was raped at gunpoint in 1975 while she was a talk-show host in Richmond, founded Fear 2 Freedom to help others heal.

Herring said his office will begin an immediate review of campus policies and will hold a statewide summit in October for university administrators and law enforcement.

The summit will help schools navigate federal requirements, which he said are “complex and can be challenging to implement, but they can help our schools reach fair and just outcomes.”

Task force findings and recommendations, which are due by June, will look at best practices, such as training programs that encourage bystander intervention.

The task force will have up to 30 members, including advocates for assault survivors and representatives from higher education, law enforcement, health professions and state government.

Herring said the task force will ensure that schools have judicial proceedings in place that coordinate with local law enforcement, singling out Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech as two with effective protocols.

VCU Police Chief John Venuti, who was among campus representatives attending the announcement, said “a paradigm shift” is taking place nationally in how to address sexual violence.

Bystander intervention — in which other students are trained to speak up when they see a situation developing — is one of the most effective tools, Venuti said.

VCU takes “a survivor-centered approach” that determines whether assault cases are handled by campus judiciary proceedings or by the courts, he said.

“It’s really what does the survivor want,” Venuti said. “At the end of the day, that should drive the decision of what happens.”

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