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Guest Viewpoint: Proposing a shift in sexual assault policy

This piece reflects the views of the author, Travis Evans, and not those of Emerald Media Group. It has been edited by the Emerald for grammar and style. Send your columns or submissions about our content or campus issues to [email protected]

Over the past two years, I have been on a course that has shifted almost every term. I am a graduate student at a university where I am studying conflict resolution. Eventually, my course shifted enough that I took a class on human trafficking and how it affects every country, every city and every community. I decided to focus on advocacy for victims of human trafficking and try to work towards the prevention of human trafficking within my own small town. As my concentration developed I eventually took a course on the psychology of trauma. This course expanded my knowledge of how trauma affects the human brain, body and mind. Learning the processes that go on within a human who has endured some sort of trauma were extremely informative and I wanted to learn more. This interest, along with extra credit, put me into a room where a panel discussed sexual assault on campus, who should be responsible for reporting and how it should be reported. An idea popped into my head and I have not been able to stop thinking about this since.

One student, an undergrad who identified themselves as such, mentioned resident advisors and how these advisors are often unintentional reporters because they are usually the physical representation of an authority figure or a parent when a college student is living in the dorms. The conversation went back and forth with possibilities and opportunities and I was really intrigued. But what really caught me off guard was the fact that these RAs are, in a sense, mandatory reporters. From my psychology class, I learned that what really helps many victims of sexual assault and other forms of trauma is the survivor’s ability to maintain autonomy. These two ideas started to conflict with each other in my mind and I thought back to my conflict resolution studies. We had just visited the new office of the Ombudsman on campus and with this in mind I thought to myself: why aren’t RAs falling under the office of Ombuds and becoming mediators of sorts?

Being a college student over a longer period of time than I would like to admit, I have seen the campus change and the mindsets of many parents, faculty, and the local police, shift. These adults now see many of the issues that plague new college students as things that should not derail a college student, but as opportunities for growth. I have heard the story time after time: an underage student drinks too much and everyone is afraid to help that student because no one wants to get in trouble. Well, what happens when that fear of punishment ends up hurting someone even more? What happens when a student loses control over a situation where they already feel they have lost control of their own body? While all parents want their children to be safe once they leave the house, and indeed resident advisors add some sense of safety to the parents’ mindset along with holding certain legal responsibilities for the universities at which they attend and work for, why should the RA role be that of punishment?

I feel we are at a great moment where we can combine multiple issues into one opportunity. Let’s create a safe and healthy environment for our college students, one that allows for mistakes, but one that also helps those who have been hurt. Let’s take away the fear of punishment from the students living in dorms and across campus. Let’s change the way an RA works, train them to be mediators for disputes, give these RAs a true form of discretion, and most importantly, let’s give victims of assault the opportunity to maintain their autonomy so that they can heal.

Under my proposed shift in policy, resident advisors would still be required to report any threat of violence or death to any individual just as the Ombudsman is. However, once taken on under the office of Ombuds, these RAs would be able to listen to problems, attempt to help those in need and mediate if possible along with tracking data. The students that an RA helps remain anonymous (again, this is the way the office of Ombuds currently works), so there is no change to that policy. The RAs will be trained in policies and procedures for multiple issues including, but not limited to, sexual assault. RAs will still maintain a presence that promotes safety, but would do so with the understanding of the students that their lives remain in their control.

With changes in policy regarding sexual assault and trauma becoming a monthly development, let us also keep in mind the opportunities we have for healing — for helping our students rather than continuing or causing more harm.

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