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UMBC has long mishandled sexual assault claims

The recent class-action lawsuit alleging a cover up of sexual assault at UMBC by university and Baltimore County police, and the subsequent student response, have brought newfound attention to a longstanding issue at UMBC concerning mishandling of sexual assault reports, ineffective sexual assault prevention education and inadequate support for survivors.

While it is heartening to now see the administration meet and hear out students, attempts were made to bring these issues to their attention as recently as last semester. Members of We Believe You, UMBC’s sexual assault advocacy group, met with Nancy Young and Kim Leisey — vice president and associate vice president, respectively, of student affairs — and Title IX coordinator, Bobbie Hoye, on April 27. We shared a petition asking the university to: mandate sexual assault prevention education for all students, establish an office dedicated to serving survivors of sexual assault and ensure students know their rights under Title IX. Unfortunately, our concerns were dismissed outright, and we were told these asks were unrealistic and unachievable.

It is not as if the administration does not realize sexual assault is a problem on our campus. Data from a 2016 UMBC campus climate survey found 1 in 5 UMBC students experiences sexual assault, and of these incidents, 72 percent occur on campus and 37 percent of them take place within a student’s first year at UMBC. The administration also acknowledged during our April 27th meeting that our current sexual assault prevention education, a one-hour online program, was ineffective. It is particularly ineffective since the majority of students do not complete the program, given that it is not mandatory. It is technically “required,” but non-compliant students receive no sanctions, such as a class registration block, according to my research; in 2016, only 44 percent of incoming students completed the program.

Furthermore, brief or online prevention programs have not been shown to reduce sexual assault on their own. A 2014 study by psychologist Sarah DeGue and colleagues of over 100 sexual assault prevention programs found the average length of effective programs was six hours, and best practices encourage intensive programming for students at elevated risk, such as students in their first semester and first year of college. UMBC offers extensive programming for new students during orientation and Welcome Week, but sexual assault prevention programming is not part of the offerings.

In addition, I was told that Ms. Young and Ms. Leisey were part of the decision to discontinue the Voices Against Violence program in 2016. This was the only dedicated office and position on campus to serve survivors of violence, and unlike with the Title IX office, students who reported to the Voices Against Violence coordinator were not required to file an official university report to receive services and support. Currently, students who wish to seek help for an assault are encouraged to report to Title IX, or if they are fortunate enough to know of one of the few confidential resources on campus, they can seek support without having to file a formal report with the university.

Unfortunately, UMBC class syllabi are not required to include language on Title IX and sexual misconduct, and as a result, most students do not know whom to talk to, and may inadvertently speak to a responsible employee who must report them to Title IX. While Title IX is crucial to ensuring equal access to education and can help students access important safety accommodations, it is neither advocacy nor support. In addition, our university continues to be under Title IX investigation for mishandling cases of sexual assault.

The impact of this lack of prevention education and survivor-centered resources is evident: according to the aforementioned 2016 UMBC climate survey, less than half of UMBC students received information on how to define or prevent sexual assault, and only about a quarter received information on where to get help for an assault or report an assault.

And so, while the current allegations are upsetting and egregious, they are the logical outcome of an administration that sweeps rape and sexual assault under the rug. I call on the UMBC administration to mandate sexual assault prevention education for all students, including in-person education for incoming first year students during Welcome Week; require Title IX language in all class syllabi and re-establish the Voices Against Violence office.

UMBC Retrievers and the state of Maryland deserve better than this. We deserve to feel safe on our campus and to have the tools to prevent sexual assault and abuse, and the knowledge on what resources exist to help us or a friend.

Aliya Webermann is a psychology doctoral student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a member of We Believe You. Her email is aliyaw1@umbc.edu.

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