The four changes to Duke's gender violence policy we actually need

By now, we’re all aware that Duke’s response to campus sexual assault is inadequate. But while we make this declaration with fervor, when it comes time to present improvements to these policies, the picture gets a little fuzzier. 

It’s time to come up with some concrete solutions. I present to you: The Four Changes to Duke’s Gender Violence Policy We Actually Need. Hire me, BuzzFeed.

In order to make these suggestions, I have to present two caveats. First, I must proceed with the assumption that Duke is prepared to take a public health approach to eradicating sexual violence on campus. This requires we address gender violence as a problem not between an individual and a perpetrator, but as a systemic issue embedded in our culture. Without this perspective, our efforts will become little more than Band-Aid solutions.

Also, while I won’t be directly analyzing the reporting process again, it is clear that the system’s callous treatment of survivors and lack of punishment for perpetrators is unacceptable. Any changes Duke makes will be in vain if we fail to first ensure a tight legal system through which justice is not just possible, but actually achievable.

Now let’s talk solutions.

1. Build trust in the institution

You don’t have to look far to find someone upset about Duke’s lackluster response to campus gender violence. Duke’s administration surely recognizes that these criticisms exist, but it has failed on multiple levels to adequately respond to them. Duke senior Sonali Mehta identifies this as a core issue. “There are so many ways that Duke could signal that they care and that they're trying everything they can think of, but right now I think most students aren't feeling that from the institution. We're not thinking big enough.”

While “building trust” may seem abstract, denying its importance in gender violence reforms has palpable consequences. The changes we want can only be as powerful as the student reception to them. We need to feel that Duke actually wants to uplift these conversations, not stifle them. 

There are a few administrators working to eradicate campus gender violence who have gained student trust, most notably Mary Pat McMahon. This is no coincidence—Mary Pat has dedicated hours to listening to and working with student leaders. But not only that, she has responded to our ideas with action plans instead of empty words. That’s how you motivate a student body. 

It’s not enough to be heard. We need to feel heard.

2. Consolidate our resources

In writing my column last semester about Duke’s reporting process, I had a conversation with a survivor named Ben. When I asked him what additional resources he believed Duke needed, his response surprised me.

“Survivors should have the ability to file an on-campus restraining order.”

Ben’s idea had plenty of merit—in Duke’s tight-knit social circles, survivors are often forced to face their assailant day after day, exacerbating their trauma and delaying their healing. But there’s one problem. That policy already exists.

What Ben described is codified at Duke as a “No Contact” Directive. “No Contact” Directives function exactly like on-campus restraining orders, wherein the assailant is unable to contact the survivor in any way or else face university retribution. 

When the people most desperately in need of these services have no idea they exist, we’re doing something wrong.

Currently, resources for survivors are spread out across campus in what DSG President Liv McKinney could only dub “a giant information clusterf**k.” With the Women’s Center on East Campus, DuWell in the Wellness Center, administrators in both the BC and the Allen Building, and minimal guidance about where to go with what concern, survivors are bound to feel overwhelmed. Looking for information online isn’t much better, as the Student Affairs website is user-hostile and disconnected. If our goal is to make it as easy as possible for survivors to get help, this organization—or lack thereof—is a step in the wrong direction.

In the short term, Duke needs to put every one of our gender violence resources on a single website and make sure that the website is actually easy to navigate. Simple, achievable, and won’t break Duke’s billion-dollar bank. But if we’re talking long term, this could look like a stand-alone center dedicated solely to gender violence prevention and response. What better way to these tools plainly available to survivors than by putting them all in a central physical location?

3. Create a cohesive marketing campaign

This deceptively important step goes hand-in-hand with consolidating our resources. If the student body isn’t sure where to find sexual violence prevention and response tools, two obstacles are potentially at play: either the resources aren’t in an obvious location, or that location isn’t being well-advertised. Duke has both of these problems.

The closest thing Duke has to a marketing campaign are the dozens of Women’s Center stickers plastered inside campus bathroom stalls, which offer information about where to receive counseling, medical care, or materials to report an assault. These stickers are great, don’t get me wrong. We just need more than stickers.

Consider Tulane’s All In initiative. In Tulane’s 2018 climate survey, 41% of female students reported having been sexually assaulted since arriving on campus. Sound familiar? In response, Tulane instituted the All In initiative that fall, a campus-wide effort to eradicate sexual violence which included the creation of a student coalition to garner feedback, weekly “Tulane Tuesdays” to encourage peer-to-peer conversation, and multiple events throughout the year to highlight the issue of sexual violence from a variety of perspectives. Plus, the All In website is both user-friendly and informative. 

With this campaign, Tulane has made it easy for any student, staff or faculty member to respond to instances of sexual violence and get involved in on-campus awareness efforts. They have committed to a brand, and its messaging is clear: every member of their community is instrumental to stopping campus sexual violence.

As Mary Pat underscored, “there are good models out there. We don’t have to start over.”

4. Educate the entire student bodymore than once

How many times have you heard this change proposed? If I had a dollar for every time someone told me Duke should require gender violence training beyond O-Week, I’d be able to pay for, like, at least a semester of tuition.

“Education” is perhaps the most daunting category of gender violence reform. There are countless routes Duke could choose to take in raising awareness—and that’s the problem. We’ve become debilitated by the sheer volume of possibilities. But as Mehta argues, “No institution has definitely proven a certain approach will eradicate campus sexual violence. That shouldn't paralyze us. If we wait for the research, we'll be waiting forever. Instead, we need to be thoughtfully developing solutions and interventions, trying as many as possible, and then assessing and improving as we go along.”

The Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention and Education (SHAPE) Week is a great example of what we should be working towards. Planned and presented by DSG Senators Eden Schumer and Jake Jeffries from February 3-9, SHAPE Week aimed to “get as many students engaged with the issue as possible,” according to Jeffries. The week’s events incorporated student groups, administrators, as well as on-campus and off-campus speakers, and drew hundreds of students to participate.

Not only does this project have plenty of potential to become a yearly tradition, but its success demonstrates that students will engage with these issues if given the opportunity, no matter if they’re a first-year or a senior.

It goes without saying that this list is in no way exhaustive. There are plenty of other improvements I could suggest, from expanding the Women’s Center staff to organizing a peer representative program across freshman dorms. 

But we have to start somewhere. We have to start. 

Rebecca Torrence is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.

Editor's note: A previous version of this column suggested annual trainings for specific social groups and athletes. This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the Women's Center already provides these resources in the form of PACT and Five Key Norms trainings, alongside targeted trainings for specific student organizations, and that the NCAA mandates these trainings for student-athletes.


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