GVSU student leaders address sexual assault on campus, proposed Title IX changes

Avoiding sexual assault. 12/1/18. GVSU Allendale Campus. GVL / Ben Hunt

Avoiding sexual assault. 12/1/18. GVSU Allendale Campus. GVL / Ben Hunt

Laureen Horan

Grand Valley State University is widely regarded for its inclusive community and safe campus, which includes a centralized police force, Grand Valley Police Department. While it’s clear that GVSU and GVPD prioritize student safety, sexual harassment is a prominent issue for college campuses everywhere. In light of the Dept. of Education’s (DOE) recently proposed changes to Title IX guidelines, student leaders at GVSU are addressing these issues, saying there is always more to be done. 

On Dec. 6, 2018, GVSU’s Student Senate published a resolution to show their objections to the proposed Title IX changes. Along with narrowing the definition of “sexual harassment,” the proposed changes would lessen the liability of universities and would not offer protection for students who were assaulted off-campus. 

This resolution, spear-headed by Student Senate President Rachel Jenkin, asserts that the potential changes would do more harm than good for victims of sexual assault. The proposal also aims to implement a live hearing in each case with the opportunity for cross-examination. According to Jenkin, this could deter students from making a report when they’ve been assaulted. 

“Cross-examination is shown to not be effective in this setting. If a victim has to face their abuser again as they recount the details of their assault, this could cause (the victim) to experience that trauma all over again and potentially discourage students from reporting,” Jenkin said. 

Other student leaders on campus agree that the proposed Title IX changes do not prioritize the needs of assault victims. 

“The proposed changes are extremely irresponsible,” said Vice President for the Educational Affairs Committee and chairperson on GVSU’s Sexual Assault Awareness Committee Erin McIntosh. “The narrowed definition of sexual assault invalidates many people’s experiences with sexual harassment and would leave many LGBTQIA+ students vulnerable and unprotected… Grand Valley should continue their current commitment to the Division of Inclusion and Equity by standing with victim/survivors and keeping Title IX as is.” 

McIntosh also pointed out that limited space in GVSU’s student housing means many students opt to live off campus, and so those students would not be protected by Title IX even if the assault occurs near campus. According to the resolution created by student senate, about 70 percent of GVSU’s students live off campus. 

In the midst of an era where sexual assault awareness is more prominent than ever, it’s unclear as to why the DOE would want to narrow the scope by which assault survivors are protected by their campuses. 

“Betsy DeVos does not have survivors’ best interest in mind, just looking at how a lot of this has to do with saving money,” said President of It’s On Us at GVSU Maddie Vervaeke. 

Indeed, the DOE’s proposal estimates that monetary savings of the regulations could exceed $367.7 million in the next ten years. 

Regardless of whether or not the new Title IX guidelines are implemented, Jenkin said that GVSU will stay committed to helping survivors of assault. When it comes to preventative measures, Jenkin said that open discussions can be useful in preventing sexual harassment, at least to an extent. 

“I think we need more leaders who are openly discussing sex and consent with our fellow students,” Jenkin said. “If we empower our students to create solutions to the problems in their community, that can make all the difference, but it starts with knowing information and statistics about sexual assault.”

Just how often is sexual harassment occurring at GVSU? According to weekly reports released by GVPD, students reported at least one sexual harassment case per week to campus police during the fall 2018 semester. Between Aug. 29, 2018 and Nov. 3, 2018, GVPD responded to more than 15 calls related to sexual misconduct. Even though many of these incidents occurred on campus property, no notifications were sent out to students. Unless the offender is unidentified, GVSU does not send out alerts for sexual assault reports on campus. 

“In most cases, the victim/survivor will be able to give police the perpetrator’s name, but in cases where the perpetrator is unknown, this causes a continuous threat to the campus community and prompts GVPD to send an alert,” said GVPD Captain Jeff Stoll.

While some students believe that GVSU should alert students about sexual assault cases on campus, others believe that these mass alerts could have negative outcomes in the long run. 

“I do not believe that GVSU should send out a warning for every assault that occurs on/off campus… I say this because alerts are sent out to the general population,” Vervaeke said.

The fact that 28,000 people would receive these alerts is another factor that could deter students from reporting. 

“It’s a really tough call,” Jenkin said. “On one hand, these alerts could emphasize an idea of social responsibility and remind students not to be a reason an alert gets sent out. On the other hand though, it seems like campus-wide alerts could cause discomfort for the victim/survivor. Additionally, one does have to wonder if an increase in alerts could cause people to be desensitized by the notifications and pay less attention to them.” 

Another approach toward preventing sexual harassment includes making a formal report. Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes and that’s consistent at GVSU, according to victim’s advocate Krystal Diel. 

“Many of the students who come to me choose not to pursue any further investigation. There are various reasons for that and that is (the victim/survivor’s) choice to make.”

Diel explained that when students endure such trauma, everyone responds in their own way. Sometimes it’s emotional and tearful. Sometimes it’s rage. Sometimes it’s confusion and anxiety. Sometimes it’s a lack of emotion. Diel says that people experience triggers in people, places, things and smells. These triggers can cause nightmares, panic attacks, flashbacks or a combination of those. 

“If a student chooses not to report… it’s unfortunate because we want to bring them justice but in the end we have to respect their wishes regarding how to move forward,” Diel said. 

Students who want to report sexual misconduct can reach out to Diel, Grand Valley Police Department, the Title IX office, a resident assistant, trusted faculty member or the campus counseling services. The courage to report misconduct could prevent it from happening to someone else. 

The public commenting period for the proposed Title IX changes will close on Monday, Jan. 28. Any implemented changes are likely to go into effect within the year. Along with this piece published by the Lanthorn, GVSU’s West Side Stories kicked off their latest season on Sunday evening with a segment on the proposed Title IX changes. The segment can be viewed on the West Side Stories’ YouTube channel.