Small step or giant leap? UVA’s Title IX resolution draws hope for future, raises concerns about past

UVA's rotunda. File photo. UVA’s rotunda. File photo.

Still caught in the wake of last year’s Rolling Stone controversy, the administration at the University of Virginia has been hard at work trying to improve its response to sexual assault. Attempting to mend the damage, the university entered into a resolution agreement with the Office for Civil Rights last week that promises to uphold Title IX regulations.

Among other things, UVA vowed to provide sexual assault training for students and faculty, develop an effective system for reviewing complaints of sexual assault, improve outreach with students and review its previous complaints to determine if they were handled appropriately.

Liz Seccuro, a UVA grad who was raped as a first year in 1984, described the Title IX resolution as “a watershed moment for sexual assault victims.”

She adds, “For the first time there is culpability, and an acknowledgment that the university has not followed the rules in the past or treated sexual assault victims on Grounds properly.”

Despite the acknowledgment not everyone is ready to believe in the changes that UVA pledges to enforce.

Seccuro, for one, calls her experience, “nothing short of disastrous,” saying the administration “protected the perpetrators and witnesses” in her case.

While the university is surely not the same as it was 30 years ago, there are disturbing similarities between the way Seccuro was treated and UVA’s present-day violations of Title IX for four consecutive academic years. Title IX is a federal law that prevents gender-based discrimination in a federally funded education program.

From 2008 to 2012, as well as three cases after this time period, the Office for Civil Rights said UVA failed to respond to student reports of sexual violence in a timely and equitable manner.

Although the Title IX resolution details a plan of action for UVA to effectively address sexual assault in the future, Seccuro doubts whether real change will occur, calling some of their previous efforts “lip service” and emphasizing the importance of hard consequences to stimulate change.

Current students at the University of Virginia are more optimistic about the changes, including several sexual assault groups on Grounds. One Less and One in Four, two student-led groups that practice advocacy and peer education, published a statement addressing the recent resolution agreement.

“Although we recognize the many past mistakes with regards to the treatment of survivors’ stories and reports, it is clear that the university has made crucial steps towards fostering an environment conducive to reporting and comprehensive, fair adjudication,” it said.

Alexandria Pinkleton, the president of One Less, adds that it’s not just UVA making changes. One Less and One in Four combined efforts this fall to introduce Dorm Norms, an educational program for first-year students explaining how each of them can prevent sexual assault.

Pinkleton notes that they reached more than 1,200 students this year and hopes the university will continue to support them in the future.

The two clubs also described their hopes for future transparency in UVA’s sexual assault policies, a thought seconded by Seccuro, who observes how confusing these policies can be for victims and accused alike.

The resolution addressed this clarity for student organizations, specifically mentioning fraternities and sororities and saying that the failure of an organization’s student members to comply with the Title IX policy may result in the university “severing all ties with the organization.”

Seccuro, who was sexually assaulted at a fraternity, believes the relationship between the university and the Greek system is reliant on money and thinks it could have an effect on sexual assault investigations.

“Never underestimate the Greek alumni machine and the power it wields,” Seccuro says. “The university is afraid to alienate the Greek organizations and their checkbooks, so investigations will be delayed, if they ever even happen.”

However, Seccuro believes it’s unfair to fraternities to paint them all in the same light. As she puts it, “We’re trying to prosecute rapists, not an entire culture.”

While the Title IX resolution holds many promising steps for the future, especially where university policy is concerned, the University of Virginia might have a long path before sexual assault victims feel comfortable with administrators handling their cases.

For Seccuro, who says she never received an apology from UVA, the answer lies in empathy.

“The university needs to come out of the dark and lend a hand, an ear and a much-needed heart,” she says. “We can have all the best practices and policies in the world, but we must have basic empathy afforded the victims of this most devastating crime.”

Real talk: UVA students discuss sexual assault

Over the past year, UVA has not only updated sexual assault policies, but it has also implemented mandatory education modules and bystander-training programs like Green Dot to raise awareness of sexual assault. Here’s what students say about the changes.

Charlotte Barstow, Third year

“On education modules: It encouraged me to be on the lookout for things and not be afraid to step in if something’s off or looks a little suspicious.”

Shanelle Rucker, Fourth year

“It’s interesting because I think that everyone sees the alcohol wise modules and the sexual assault modules as kind of obnoxious to do. But they’re still learning at the same time.”

Michael Mutersbauth, First year

“Everyone’s on their guard. Things may have slipped through the cracks or problems may have occurred because someone turned the blind eye. I feel like people aren’t doing that anymore.“

Dominic Lam Ting Luk, Fourth year

“I think [sexual assault] has definitely been taken more seriously ever since last year. It definitely helps that it’s more on everyone’s mind now because I’m sure it was going underreported before.”

Elizabeth Muratore, First year

“I think it’s great that [the university] is investigating these cases, but I think the only thing that will really make people feel safer is if the cases stop coming in.”

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