BLACKSBURG — Awareness that sexual violence is a problem on college campuses is at an all-time high — nationally and at Virginia Tech,” said Frank Shushok, Jr. Virginia Tech's senior associate vice president for student affairs and interim Title IX coordinator.
“I think that awareness begins to empower people to tell their story and enact the process that holds perpetrators accountable,” he added.
During the 2014-2015 academic year at Virginia Tech there were 98 reported cases of student-on-student sexual assault, exploitation, harassment, intimate partner violence, or stalking – a big jump over 2013-2014 when 35 cases were reported.
The increase in reported cases of student-on-student sexual misconduct could be a step in the right direction, Shushok said. He attributes the increase in reporting to the university’s renewed commitment to strong policies, procedures, training, and response, along with heightened education about campus resources.
“Colleges and universities are responding in a significant way to the reality that sexual violence is pervasive on campuses. The good news is that’s the first step to a cultural change that is going to need to occur for us to see meaningful shifts,” said Shushok. “People need to know that the university takes sexual violence seriously, and most importantly, when reported, we will do everything within our power to care for and protect the people who report it. Our goal is for every case to be investigated thoroughly, effectively, and fairly.”
Virginia Tech hired two Title IX investigators and gender-based violence prevention specialists to work with Shushok. Ennis McCrery and Katie Polidoro are charged with investigating allegations of sexual misconduct and educating students about sexual violence prevention.
“As investigators, our job is to deal directly with students, to gather facts and information. We can either hold someone accountable for something they’ve done, or find some sort of resolution to what has happened,” said Polidoro. Once the investigation is complete, the results are sent to Shushok, who decides whether it’s forwarded to student conduct for adjudication.
“A really important part of our role is to make sure students are supported, both the complainant and the respondent, throughout the process. We make sure each student in the process has an advocate and we are treating everyone fairly,” said McCrery.
The other part of the equation – preventing gender-based violence – is all about education and cultural change.
“Our college students are coming to campus having very little facilitated introspection into gender roles and gender narratives that influence the way we think,” said Shushok. “I believe there’s significant cultural messaging that reinforces notions about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. I think it plays into the kinds of incidents we have and behaviors we see.”
McCrery and Polidoro are working collaboratively with the Women’s Center and other partners to reorganize and centralize the work of the Sexual Violence Prevention Council (SVPC). Students, faculty, staff, law enforcement, and community members will begin meeting this month. Their goal: design and implement new gender-based violence prevention messages and campaigns with campus-wide education and outreach efforts. In the Division of Student Affairs, staff members will be working to develop new initiatives, including healthy masculinity and other topics for dialogue, to expand the university’s current prevention efforts.
“It’s about working together to identify education and prevention strategies that resonate with our students and university culture,” said McCrery. “How do we coordinate the message and who’s responsible? It has to be a multi-disciplinary approach, which brings in different voices and encourages new connections and partnerships.”
Resources available to victims of sexual misconduct on the Virginia Tech campus range from the Stop Abuse VT website to the Women’s Center to Cook Counseling and Schiffert Health Center. All Virginia Tech employees are required to complete a compliance workshop about mandatory reporting responsibilities under University Policy 1025, Title IX, and the Violence Against Women Act.
“Our biggest challenge is not to mistake our strengthened policies, procedures, and response with where our attention must be focused: cultural change,” said Shushok. “Cultural change is going to require a level of investment and commitment to real dialogue with the whole campus community in an ongoing and sustained way.”
As that challenge continues, both McCrery and Polidoro remain motivated by the passion they have for their work.
“I value the opportunity to collaborate with students and others as we seek ways to promote cultural changes that make our community safer and more inclusive,” said McCrery.
“This position at Virginia Tech is such a wonderful opportunity to help address campus sexual violence in a meaningful way, and in a way that students feel served and supported,” added Polidoro. “It’s a great place to combine a commitment to fairness and good policy with a deep sense of compassion.”
Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.