Duke’s obligation to support the student-led solution to sexual assault

community editorial board

If there is one thing that all Duke students can agree on, it’s that everyone has a right to feel safe and comfortable on campus, no matter the circumstances. With regard to sexual assault, the unfortunate reality is that this has not been entirely true at Duke.

While college campuses have historically seen high levels of sexual misconduct and harassment, Duke’s numbers are especially frightening. In the midst of an exciting weekend of Blue Devil Days and a sophomore “Halfway There” celebration, any visitor is one Google search away from some incredibly disturbing statistics.

The 2018 Student Experiences survey ultimately reported that 48% of undergraduate female students have reported being sexually assaulted during their undergraduate experience, an increase from 40% in the previous 2016 survey. Rates of sexual violence are higher for members of the transgender community, disabled community and other identity groups. These figures are even more difficult to grasp when considering the fact that incidents of sexual harassment and assault are often underreported by survivors, especially by members of frequently stigmatized identity groups.

These numbers alone are characteristic of an epidemic, making sexual harassment and assault one of the most pertinent and pervasive issues on campus receiving relatively minimal attention from administrative and publications personnel. But what about the stickers in the bathrooms? Surely those represent Duke taking action against this widespread evil, right? For those who have never had to dial any of those numbers, the answer may appear to be a yes.

In reality, the answer is a resounding…not really. If you dial the number on the Student Affairs website, for example, you will be told by an outdated voicemail to page an unspecified number if you would like to report a case. Upon doing so, you will be told by a computerized machine to call yet another unspecified number. Once you dial that number, you will arrive at your final destination: a “confidential” voicemail box. But do not fret just yet—you also have the option to send emails to a variety of addresses, and you should get a response (at an unspecified time). 

While we acknowledge that the presence of such resources is both important and necessary, we assert that these hotlines must be systematically modified, with fewer hoops to jump through and more direct support. Forcing survivors to repeatedly relive their trauma in the long-winded process of finding support is not just unfair, but entirely avoidable. This is where SHAPE, the most active and influential sexual violence advocacy group ever seen on campus, comes in.

SHAPE, which stands for Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention and Education, is an entirely student-led advocacy group that works to eradicate sexual assault on campus, founded by graduating senior Eden Schumer. 

SHAPE began with two students, Schumer and former member senior Jake Jeffries, horrified by tales of sexual misconduct heard from friends in the first weeks of freshmen year (a period referred to as “The Red Zone” due to the increased likelihood for sexual assault). Their efforts SHAPE week, a week-long initiative in February 2020 that brought in 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nadia Murad, founder of Nadia’s Initiative.

It wasn’t until Fall 2020 that SHAPE emerged as an organization, and in less than two years, it has grown from a small group of driven students to a vibrant organization and community with more than 75 members, organized into five project teams (ranging from marketing to athletics to Greek Life) and a variety of subteams. In this year alone, SHAPE has raised almost $2,000 for national advocacy groups, distributed first-year resources and trained every SLG and fraternity using entirely original presentations––an incredible achievement whose result has been over 1,000 students with increased awareness of these issues.

A defining aspect of SHAPE is the fact that it is entirely student-run, creating a level of inter-student trust that Schumer defines as its “most sacred resource.” For example, SHAPE welcomes any and all students to become “SHAPE Reps,” who act as voices in the student community who show their support by representing a student group or just by affiliating and distributing resources.

We do not mean to insinuate that Duke has done nothing at all. But the issues with the resources run deeper than just poor maintenance and excessive hoop-jumping. Resources like the bathroom stickers are what Schumer calls “reactionary: they support those who have been affected by these problems, but they do nothing to reduce the number of people who will be in the future.” Right now, the biggest resource Duke has in the way of educational resources is an effectively optional and highly forgettable online first-year training (because who better to teach you how to treat humans than a computer screen?). The administration must understand that to change the culture surrounding sexual assault, resources must be prevention-focused, not just response-focused. Having the latter without the former verges on performative activism.

Whether or not Duke has been looking for a solution to sexual assault on campus, SHAPE has done the heavy lifting for them. SHAPE has not only made the implementation of change possible, but has also proven that it can feasibly be done in a short amount of time. Therefore, the administration must offer more of its abundant financial resources to SHAPE so that the organization can initiate more survivor-centric prevention and education programs informed by student input.

SHAPE project director Alex Hoffman stated “it isn’t a question of whether Duke can do something. It’s a question of whether they will.” Just look at Duke’s pandemic response, which garnered praise from the CDC and Los Angeles Times alike. In Schumer’s words, “if Duke can address a public health issue…like COVID, why can’t it address sexual assault as the public health issue and epidemic it is?”  

The establishment of the SAIL, the Sexual Assault Impact and Listening Committee, headed by Mary Pat McMahon and Kim Hewitt, and their recent conversation with SHAPE, is a step in the right direction. Schumer even called the meeting “the most productive” administrative conversation on sexual assault that she has been involved in. However, more can and should be done.

According to SHAPE co-director Rhea Tejwani, SHAPE’s goal is to initiate more of these conversations with SAIL and other administrative personnel, ensuring that students play a central role in planning future initiatives. “Students are the ones affected by these issues, so their voices should be heard in these conversations.” It is well within the reach of administration to allocate more time to these issues in meeting with the many passionate students respectfully trying to make their voices heard. Furthermore, it shouldn’t be too much to ask to expect updates on Duke’s progress in curbing this epidemic. Seen anything in your inbox on the topic? Me neither.

It is worth noting that SHAPE has been highlighted for its hard work, with Schumer and project director Nicole Rosenzweig receiving a collective three achievement awards at the most recent In The Spotlight Awards. However, Schumer says SHAPE’s mission is only beginning. “The bar for our projects and culture is changing people’s day-to-day lives. That’s the bar, not the goal.” Duke needs to take action, either directly or through SHAPE, in fostering a more prevention-focused atmosphere, creating a safer and more progressive campus in the process.

Editor’s Note: Ashley Bae has recused herself from this article as a member of SHAPE. 

The Community Editorial Board is independent from the editorial staff of The Chronicle. Their column runs on Tuesdays. 


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