In light of recent complaints of West Virginia University’s handling of sexual assault on campus, freshman SGA Sen. Olivia Dowler is reaching out to survivors to offer resources and understanding.
Earlier this month, WellWVU, in collaboration with the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, placed flags in Woodburn Circle for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, representing that 1-in-4 women and 1-in-16 men are sexually assaulted during their time in college.
For many students, this display seemed insincere. Shortly after the University posted about the flags on Instagram, the comment section flooded with criticism from current and former students.
“A lot of these cases, you see, it seems that the victims are being hurt even more by the University,” Dowler said. “As an SGA representative, I want them to know that I see them and hear them and that I believe them — the University needs to show them that too.”
Some claimed their sexual assault cases had been dismissed or ignored. Other students said they purposefully avoided Woodburn Circle while walking to class because they found the flags triggering.
Dowler was recently elected as an At-Large senator and named the SGA member of the year.
This Friday, April 23, she and other members of SGA will be holding a tabling event at the Mountainlair from noon to 3 p.m. followed by a luminary vigil at Woodburn Circle at 7:30 p.m. in support of sexual assault survivors.
In the past two weeks, Dowler has spent time speaking with survivors who disclosed their stories of assault and how the University handled their cases.
“It’s heartbreaking to see how many students dropped out or how many students have gone years and years without having any response,” Dowler said. “I don’t want them, any survivor, to believe that they’re a lost cause or a lost case, because they’re not. Everybody’s story matters.”
As a first-year student and survivor of sexual assault, Dowler wants to ensure that incoming students feel safe coming on to campus next fall.
This summer, she plans to educate first-year students during New Student Orientation on resources available for sexual assault survivors.
“I think it’s our responsibility as a university to ‘go first’ across the state, across the nation, and come forward and speak into the discomfort,” Dowler said. “No university wants to say they have an issue with sexual assault, but if you don’t confront that... nothing is going to change.”
Next year, Dowler plans to visit neighboring high schools and speak with students about Title IX and their rights coming into college, such as medical amnesty.
“I haven’t heard or seen any student concerns, so I want to begin by saying that,” said Amy Kittle, assistant director for Prevention and Education. “But I do want to say that student concerns are very important.”
According to Kittle, the flag display wasn’t taken down in response to student complaints, and everything the University had planned for Sexual Assault Awareness Month was planned in advance.
Kittle said any time topics of sexual assault or sexual violence are discussed, they have the “potential to be really triggering or upsetting for a variety of reasons.”
“It’s still important to talk about these issues and raise awareness of these issues because if things aren’t discussed or reported, or addressed right, then we can’t expect them to change,” Kittle said.
While many students urge the University to do more in these investigations, amendments made to Title IX in 2020 make it more challenging to do so. The regulations made last year increased the rights of those accused of sexual misconduct and limited the complaints colleges are able to respond to.
Under these regulations, the University is required to dismiss any report that doesn’t “meet the definition and jurisdiction of Title IX,” according to James Goins Jr., WVU’s Title IX Coordinator.
Despite this, Title IX may be subject to change.
The Department of Education launched a comprehensive review of Title IX regulations earlier this month, per President Biden’s executive order, but until it’s complete, universities are required to adhere to current regulations.
Title IX also imposes challenges to survivors of sexual assault that wish to remain anonymous.
According to Goins, anonymity is never granted to students or staff members who wish to proceed with a Title IX investigation, but there are other resources available.
“One of the first resources is to give back power to the person who feels like they’ve been done wrong, and that means not forcing them through any process that they’re not willing to go through at the particular point,” Goins said.
The WVU Peer Advocates and the LGBTQ+ center offer anonymous resources and reporting — only non-identifiable information is provided to the University.
The Carruth Center also offers confidential resources to survivors.
For students seeking help off-campus, the Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center located in Morgantown offers confidential resources, such as emergency shelter, counseling and support groups, free of charge. Those in need can reach the RDVIC at 304-292-5100.
“I just do not feel, as a state as a whole, we have a comprehensive enough Title IX education, a comprehensive enough sex education or anything at all,” Dowler said. “We really need to set that precedent.”