It took a federal class action lawsuit and a high-profile protest on campus for University of Maryland Baltimore County leaders to hear what some students have been saying for years — that it doesn’t do nearly enough to prevent sexual violence or to support victims. The school’s president, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, says he and other UMBC officials have done a great deal of listening in the last few weeks, both to those who stormed his office and to other advocates, and they plan to accelerate their efforts around training for students, faculty and staff, reporting procedures and physical safety measures.
“I’m saying, straight up, we need to do more,” Mr. Hrabowski said during a meeting with The Sun’s editorial board. He added: “We will be one of the national models” in developing new ways to prevent and address sexual violence. “I have no doubt about that.”
To which we echo the response of Kimberly Spadafora, a UMBC junior and vice president of the advocacy group We Believe You, who attended the meeting at The Sun with Mr. Hrabowski.
“Students are still skeptical,” she said. “We want to make sure the skepticism stays. We’re getting things done, but we’re getting things done because we’re still pushing.”
There’s reason for the skepticism, of course, even without prejudging the merits of the lawsuit’s claims that the university has historically discouraged the reporting of sexual assault claims to Baltimore County police. We know, for example, that the training sexual assault prevention training given to new students was cursory — a single hour-long online module — and that most students didn’t complete it. Students aren’t allowed to register for classes if they don’t provide proof of vaccinations, but no such policy is in place for sexual assault prevention training, so only 44 percent took it in 2016. And we’re guessing that those 44 percent were probably not the ones most in need of being reached.
The student advocates who accompanied Mr. Hrabowski to The Sun made clear that what’s needed is sustained, in-person training for students, faculty and staff, tailored to each of their roles. Much more education needs to take place around the ways to report incidents of sexual violence and the law about how certain faculty members and staff are required to respond when students tell them they are victims. And there should to be far more resources available for students to discuss incidents of abuse confidentially so that they can be linked to counseling and other resources, and so they can make good decisions about whether and how to officially report assault.
That will take money and institutional attention, and Mr. Hrabowski pledged both. “This isn’t an ‘if.’ This is what we will do,” he said. “Two or three years ago, we would have been getting pushback. We’re not getting pushback now.”
Leaders of Maryland’s other universities, take note. Even if you think you’re doing a good job in addressing sexual assault, you’re probably not. UMBC officials thought that by working to comply with Title IX law, they were doing well. But the outpouring of anger on campus this fall shows just how badly short they were.
Since news broke about the lawsuit and the protest, the nation has been embroiled in questions about sexual assault and young people, about the reasons why victims do or do not report abuse and the difficulty we as a society still have in setting appropriate standards for determining the truth and setting consequences for alleged assaults. The Kavanaugh hearings so badly failed to resolve any of those issues that it would be easy for those who care passionately about them to grow dispirited. The fact that activists and campus officials at UMBC have, instead, been engaging in what both sides characterize as productive discussions about what the school needs to do to change the culture around sexual violence is heartening.
Now they just need to keep it up, year after year. Mr. Hrabowski is right that between the #MeToo movement and recent developments on campus, UMBC is in a unique moment in terms of people’s willingness to engage on this issue. But campus leaders need to remain as focused on it even when the broader public is not. And students, faculty, staff and the broader community need to hold them accountable. That’s the only way we will make lasting change.
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