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Coordinator sheds light on Sexual Assault Awareness Month


April is known as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, SAAM. Deborah Howard is the Title IX coordinator here at Virginia State University. Her role consists of training the university about policies and procedures concerning federal law. Howard also provides resources for students in need of them and ensures that students are aware of where they can go to get help. In addition to that, she investigates and provides activities on campus for students to become aware of Title IX. 

“The Title IX Office is responsible for being independent arbiters of the facts. Our job is to listen to both sides, look at the evidence, determine if there are any patterns or discrepancies, and then make a preliminary determination regarding whether or not the reported incident should be reviewed further by a ‘judiciary body’ for final review and determination of responsibility,” Howard said.

Title IX was also put in place to ensure gender equity among everyone.

“It was put in place to protect people. We want people to look at it as a safe place. We need to shift that narrative for students to feel safe. We value what students have to say because our main clientele is students,” Howard said.

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Howard feels that students should take learning about sexual assault and awareness seriously. 

“I think it’s important that people understand their rights and responsibilities as it pertains to other people. People need to understand consent and what bodily autonomy is, as well as boundaries. There needs to be communication, it all starts with communication,” Howard said.

Howard also wants students to understand the rights of the accused.

“Sometimes, people are upset when they report an incident, and the accused is still on campus. We understand how stressful that can be. However, the law requires that we treat the accusation as an accusation (not an indictment) until an inquiry or investigation can be conducted. Until then, the law says, the person is considered innocent until proven guilty or, in the language of higher education, “responsible” said Howard.

“In most cases, that means the accused person has the right to remain on campus and continue their education until they have been found responsible.”

The sexual assault numbers on campus are calculated as both sexual and non-sexual. As of the 2023-2024 school year, 13 sexual assault cases have been reported. Of those 13, five of those cases are non-sexual (i.e., punching, choking, etc.). The remaining eight cases are the number of sexual assaults that have occurred from May 2023 to now. 

“Every number is an issue, we take seriously the number of sexual assaults and violence on campus,” Howard said. “We can’t be safe when people are conducting themselves in that manner.”

“Although the school year ends in May, we still have students here in Ettrick and the people on campus attending summer school. Therefore, any incidents beginning after graduation are factored into the upcoming school year, which would be the 2023-2024 academic year for us,” said Howard.

Howard wants students to feel safe and comfortable when coming into her office and speaking to her when it comes to sexual assault. 

“I want people to take the opportunity to talk to us about what we do, we want people to come forward and share what’s happening,” Howard said. “I train faculty and staff to come to me about anything related to sexual assault.”

Howard mentions that people can report to some different places on campus. 

“There are many places and people to report to on campus. It’s just a matter of them coming forward.”

There are resources on campus that sexual assault can be reported to: the police department, sexual assault prevention center, professors, campus ministry, CCAMPUS, and residence life. There are also confidential resources for it to be reported to on and off campus: the counseling center, sexual assault prevention office, student health, James House, and campus ministry. 

If you or someone you know would like to report confidentially by email, they can, [email protected]. The safe space support group in Memorial Hall is also a listening ear for anyone in need to talk about what has happened to them or how they can help other people.

“They may encourage students to go to Title IX to get some type of justice,” Howard said.

Howard encourages students to connect with the Title IX office as they host and plan activities regarding sexual assault awareness. Some activities and connection opportunities include Denim Day which is every 4th Wednesday of April, Walk a Mile in Her Shoes which is a domestic violence walk, and the clothesline project.

The Clothesline Project started in 1992 in Massachusetts and serves as a project for women to express their concerns over sexual assault. 

“Anything we can think of to get the word out is what we want, especially when it’s student-driven,” Howard said.

“We try to mix activities with training, we try to do as many things as we can and include student participation for awareness,” said Howard.

One of the things Howard says the Title IX office is proud of is the counseling center at James House which is an off-campus counseling service. James House is located in Prince George County but they come to Petersburg when people need assistance. They cover Colonial Heights and Hopewell too.

To improve and evaluate the effectiveness of sexual assault prevention on campus, Howard says that the Title IX office has had to make a change in how things are handled.

“Laws changed with the last president and they changed drastically so we had to make a change with how things were handled. The bar is lower to prove that something has happened. We go through training to learn what the new laws are, and push them out so you guys can understand them as well.”

Howard says that she also speaks with other Title IX groups at other HBCUs to see what they are doing on their campus as well as constantly trying to learn things by going out and learning from other schools.

“That’s how we get better and improve the process as well as being trauma-informed,” said Howard.

Howard wants students to come to her office.

 “Sexual assault is about power, not sex, you don’t get closure from that because it was a loss of innocence and trust. Coming to my office is trying to get your power back.”

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