In 2008, undergraduates at American University completed a campus survey on whether or not they had been sexually assaulted in the past year. According to the survey, 6.8 percent of American University undergraduate students—about 400 of them—reported experiencing "forced sexual touching or fondling" in the previous year. And 4.1 percent of them—about 200 students—reported experiencing "unwanted sexual intercourse" in that same time frame.
AU's Office of Campus Life, which sponsored that survey, has now blocked a campus initiative that could net the university $300,000 in federal grants to help reduce those numbers.
Each year, the U.S. Department of Justice shells out $300,000 grants to help colleges and universities fund initiatives to reduce violence against women on their campuses over a three-year period. Last June, a committee of American University administrators, faculty, and students set to work on drafting an application for the grant, hoping to secure funds for a full-time victims advocate, increased training of school officials, a dedicated student group to involve men in sexual assault prevention—and a "mandatory education program for all new students."
The proposed education program would require all new students to attend a seminar and an individualized break-out session on the topics of "healthy relationships, consent, relationship violence, stalking, sexual assault and risks correlated with increased use of drugs and alcohol." Incoming students would also be required to complete surveys about sexual assault at two points during the year. In order to ensure compliance with the policy, students who failed to attend the training or complete the surveys would be blocked from registering for classes for the next semester.
That sanction proved a deal-breaker for Vice President of Campus Life Gail Hanson, who informed grant supporters this week that she would not sign off on the application, which is due to the Department of Justice on March 31. In an e-mail, Hanson questioned "whether it is appropriate to place stops on students' registrations if they fail to complete a required sexual assault education program." Hanson added that "it would be exceptional for us to enforce that requirement through registration stops, as the grant proposal currently provides" and urged the campus to revisit the grant proposal next year after locating "an alternative approach."
Quinn Pregliasco and Leigh Ellis, two AU seniors who served on the grant committee, say that they met with Hanson back in October and presented the registration hold plan to her then; only now are they being asked to craft "an alternative" solution. "My frustration comes from not hearing any of these concerns until three days before the application is due," Pregliasco says. "This does not lead me to be overly optimistic about the application next year."
American University isn't big on mandates—the school's new student orientation isn't even mandatory—but the registration hold isn't exactly a rarity on the Tenleytown campus. If a student owes a debt to the campus library, fails to file her off-campus address with the university, or falls behind on immunizations or advising sessions, she can see a hold placed on her class schedule. And so far, American University students have appeared willing to invite the tactic. Back in September, the American University student senate passed a resolution [PDF] "supporting the use of a 'Hold' on student registration for spring classes, in the case of incomplete sexual assault education modules." The vote was unanimous.
But as sexual assault victims advocates have pushed for mandatory educational programs in schools across the country, they have been met with considerable resistance. Last September, the Foundation for International Rights in Education disputed a mandatory sexual assault education program at New York's Hamilton College produced by Keith Edwards of Men Ending Rape. The title: "She Fears You."
In a letter to Hamilton, FIRE called the training a "threat to freedom of conscience" at the school, claiming that it imposed "a mandatory, ideological presentation designed for male Hamilton College students to acknowledge their personal complicity in a 'rape culture' on Hamilton's campus and to change their 'rape-supportive beliefs' and attitudes."
FIRE's director of legal and public advocacy, Will Creeley, told me that mandatory sexual assault programs raise the foundation's attention if they engage in "editorializing" on the issue. To Creeley, an acceptable sexual assault training would stick to informing students: "This is what we consider sexual assault, and here are what the punishments are."
But when a sexual assault training reaches beyond school policy to engage in a more cultural conversation, FIRE really gets fired up. "We really have to make sure that any mandatory training does not intrude upon the students' viewpoints or convictions about gender roles and sexual identity," Creeley says. "When these sessions are mandatory, they by definition can become coercive. If it’s mandatory, the implication is that you’ll see negative repercussions for not attending."
That's exactly why Pregliasco, 21, and Ellis, 22, pushed for the registration hold solution. The Department of Justice grant actually requires that schools apply the funds to trainings that are "mandatory" for all incoming students. In researching the grant, Pregliasco found that the Department of Justice prefers that schools institute "some sort of a hard mandate" to "make sure that every student would be affected by the program," she says. "We found that a soft mandate just won't hold."
Pregliasco says the committee will continue to put "student pressure on the administration to support" the grant application before the March 31 deadline. But "even if they decide not to this year, they will see that they received specific emails from over 70 students in about 12 hours," and "those are just the ones I know about," Pregliasco says. "Now there are people waiting to hear what will come next, what the administration will do next. Students are tuning in, and they want positive, constructive solutions."