Some project directors and first-years expressed concerns with Duke’s required gender violence training after orientation week, noting that multiple students walked out crying and that attempts at comedy felt insensitive.
One part of the training involved a presentation led by Victoria Krebs, associate dean of students and then-interim director of the Center for Gender Violence Prevention and Intervention, who discussed Duke’s policies surrounding sexual violence. The presentation used language that some students described as triggering and apathetic.
Another part involved a seminar on unhealthy relationships hosted by Corey Pilson, a Balthrop-Cassidy Fellow in the Dean of Students office. Some attendees said that both trainings lacked information on mitigating sexual violence and mental health resources for survivors, while over-emphasizing Duke’s reaction to violence only after it happened.
Both Krebs and Pilson did not respond to The Chronicle’s multiple requests for comment. Gender Violence Intervention Coordinator Amy Johndro declined to comment.
The training was administered through multiple rounds in Griffith Theater to address all first-year students.
“[The training was] harmful for anyone involved … but it's especially harmful to freshmen,” said senior Ashley Bae, project director for Project Global and executive vice president of Duke Student Government. “This is their first week at school and this is how you're going to present this knowledge? It felt very strange; it made me very worried about the ways that freshmen would be able to seek help.”
‘A lot of triggering language’
Before first-years arrived for move-in, project directors received the same GVPI training given to first-years so they could lead smaller discussions with their orientation groups. After Bae and senior Rachel Weissmann, project director for Project Farm to Table, attended this initial session, they both expressed their disappointment.
“I was very vocal personally about how I felt about the GVPI training after I was given it,” Bae said. “I had a lot of thoughts and feelings on the way things were being presented to Duke students and I thought, to be quite frank, there's a lot of triggering language in there.”
As Bae and Weissman expected, students in their orientation groups shared similar sentiments. First-year Samia Evans, who was in Project Global, echoed Bae’s sentiments.
“I feel like the presentation was apathetic. I get the goal of making Duke students educated on this topic, but I feel like it was executed in the wrong way.” Evans said. “It just doesn't take into account the people who have been through the situations they discuss. If you were a person who went through that, these presentations would be very triggering and remind you of those memories.”
The presentation led by Krebs showcased conduct procedures for and responses to gender violence, which follows a narrow institutional definition at Duke. Although sexual assault and sexual exploitation are more broadly defined under GVPI policy, sexual harassment and stalking are not.
According to Duke’s policy on prohibited discrimination, harassment and misrelated conduct, sexual harassment must be repeated for action to take place because “an isolated incident, unless sufficiently severe, would not create a hostile environment.” The policy defines stalking as “two or more acts.”
The policy’s narrow definition of harassment and stalking was explained by Krebs, yet the presentation offered no solution or alternative action for students whose experiences did not meet policy definitions.
Bae said that one of the presenters during the training had insisted that Duke “can’t do anything” if someone is stalking a student, but not repeatedly.
“I thought that it was a little condescending and a little bit reductionist to say that if you're uncomfortable that some person is following you around from class to class but it doesn't fit this specific definition, then you not only do not deserve help, you shouldn't seek out help because we can't help you,” Bae said.
Concerns with content
This language elicited visceral reactions from some first-years in the lecture hall, with some having to step out with no one there to comfort them, according to Weismann.
“There were people who walked out crying and visually very clearly upset, as you would expect to happen during that,” she said. “They could have done a bit more to say, ‘We're discussing something really sensitive here, step out if you need.’”
Evans also watched her peers leave the hall from their discomfort and listened to her friend’s painful account of the presentation.
“One of my friends personally told me that [the presentation] literally made her cry after and during, as it put her in so much distress. She just kept crying.” Evans said.
Both Bae and Weissmann stepped up to comfort their student groups when they felt the training left them unsupported, even though the two were not expecting to take on that role as project directors.
In an attempt to better support students, Bae and Weissmann asked other orientation leaders, such as sophomore Chiara Federico, to stay outside to comfort first-years.
“It was a role I took on, which [GVPI] should have,” Weissmann said. “It felt like that was kind of left to me.”
Bae and Weissmann believe this lack of support reflected the Duke-centric lens that defined the training, which they also took issue with.
The presentation described hypothetical situations in which students experienced gender violence or an unhealthy relationship without explicitly acknowledging that some of the content could have been triggering to some.
Bae and Federico also took issue with Pilson’s presentation style, which utilized various comedic analogies and cultural references.
“There was a lot of effort to make it funny or engaging, but I feel like sexual violence and healthy relationships are topics that don't have to be nor should be funny or fun,” Bae said. “They should be topics that students feel encouraged to disengage in if that is what's healthy for them.”
Federico seconded this sentiment, believing that the use of comedy could have been an attempt to make the content “accessible,” but instead came off as insensitive considering the topic discussed.
Improving future trainings
Though Weissmann enjoyed Pilson’s bit and commented that it was what her training was “missing” her freshman year, she also did feel that both presentations lacked discussions of prevention.
Both the presentation and the seminar elaborated on Duke’s responses to sexual violence and unhealthy relationships but did not mention how students can better recognize risky situations where someone’s ability to consent or someone’s safety may be compromised.
“[The presenters] talked about how to report, but not how to actually stay safe from stuff, like how to protect each other or how to protect your friends, which is something really important,” Weissmann said.
Although prevention was not discussed, GVPI did offer some resources, such as how to report sexual misconduct through Duke’s conduct policies. Bae and Weissman noted that they did not mention other mental health resources on campus like Counseling and Psychological Services, sexual health resources like Peer Advocacy for Sexual Health or non-mandatory reporters that students can confide in without having to go to the Office of Student Conduct.
Though mental health and physical health support are available to students, first-years with no prior knowledge of Duke’s resources may have trouble finding and using these resources. Bae felt that the GVPI training failed to offer first-years alternatives to the conduct hearing process, and that not all students want or feel comfortable addressing their perpetrators.
Federico, who was interviewed in November, was still adamant in her criticism of the training from August. She believed re-evaluating the months-old training was still important for future classes who would receive it.
“They start planning orientation in October or November every year, and I believe orientation leader applications are going out soon. They start planning these trainings now, and it’s important that they improve them,” Federico said.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Halle Vazquez is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter for the news department.