The Title IX civil rights law prohibits sexual violence, and American University devotes considerable energy towards combating sexual assault on campus. Soon before the 45th anniversary of Title IX, AU was recognized for its commitment on this issue. EVERFI, a technology provider of educational solutions around wellness issues, honored AU with a 2017 excellence in sexual assault prevention award.
With the disturbing prevalence of sexual assaults on college campuses nationwide, AU was one of just five schools to earn this distinction. “EVERFI is an external group that has evaluated our work, and based on their evaluation, believes that we are a leader in our efforts in sexual assault prevention,” says AU Dean of Students Robert Hradsky. “So, I would hope that having that external seal would give students some reassurance that we’re doing some good work in this area.”
For an issue both troubling and challenging, Student Wellness Center Director Pritma “Mickey” Irizarry is happy to see signs of progress on sexual assault prevention. “It’s just a nice way to acknowledge that there is strong work being done at AU. And it’s not happening everywhere,” she says.
The Structure of Prevention
When Hradsky started at AU in 2008, he did a listening tour with students on campus. Students felt the university’s sexual assault prevention and response efforts were inadequate, so AU set up a Sexual Assault Working Group (SAWG) to bring together faculty, staff, and students. It was a way to evaluate current work, and make recommendations to better support students and the community.
Now, there are weekly committee meetings with people across campus. Hradsky chairs the steering committee, with five subcommittees that cover specific areas: student advocacy and support; campus awareness and education; university policies and procedures; outreach and communication; and assessment.
The assessment committee conducts a survey of undergraduate and graduate students to measure attitudes, prevalence of assault, and adequacy of resources. “If we find, for example, that students are confused about resources, or if we find that incidents are occurring in a particular space, that helps us to really target our training efforts. We make sure that we are addressing those concerns,” says Hradsky.
AU has evolved in other ways. Hradsky was formerly Title IX coordinator, but AU designated a full-time program officer (now Regina Curran) responsible for investigating and responding to complaints of interpersonal and sexual violence. AU also hired its first victim advocate, and now the university has two people in that role, Sara Yzaguirre and Maya Vizvary. The work done by SAWG blossomed into the Office of Advocacy Services for Interpersonal and Sexual Violence (OASIS).
Hradsky says AU commits more resources to this issue than many other colleges. “When we look at some of the data around average numbers of people devoted to this effort, we’re actually a little bit higher than other mid-sized universities,” he says. “There are a lot of people who are working to make this a safer campus.”
AU has found numerous—and sometimes creative—ways to reach students. All incoming students, including transfer and graduate students, take an online course called Think About It. Incoming undergraduates are mandated to participate in an in-person, 90-minute workshop session called Empower AU.
The university also worked to incorporate sexual violence awareness issues into AUx1, a pilot college introductory course that is slated to become mandatory. There is information on the back of bathroom stalls about how to report sexual assaults, and AU uses a phone app called UASK DC that includes information on contacting campus police and getting medical/counseling help.
Irizarry says that in her office, Maya Vizvary is heavily involved in weighing the effectiveness of their programs. “If we put all our energy into doing a program, and it’s kind of a flop, we don’t repeat it next year. We take student feedback pretty seriously,” Irizarry explains. “We try to have a plethora of events, and a variety as well, so that students can get engaged in different ways that they’re comfortable.”
It Takes a Village
Hradsky and Irizarry emphasize that many people are working—and continuously needed—to prevent sexual assault at AU. The university remains on the Education Department’s list of schools under Title IX investigation, but they feel confident that the institution is making strides.
“I think this award is something that the entire community should be proud of. It’s not a situation of, ‘We’re done.’ This is showing that, ‘We’re doing a good job. Let’s keep it up,’” Irizarry says.
To commend the entire university’s dedication, Hradsky says an award ceremony—with additional education sessions—is expected on campus this fall. “That way our community can join in the celebration of this award,” he says. “It takes a village.”