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Virginia Tech starts 21-member work group to address sexual violence on campus

Students protest in front of Burruss Hall on September 28th, calling on University leaders to...
Students protest in front of Burruss Hall on September 28th, calling on University leaders to address sexual violence on campus.(Will Thomas)
Published: Nov. 4, 2021 at 6:37 PM EDT
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BLACKSBURG, Va. (WDBJ) - Virginia Tech students have been calling on university leaders to address rising sexual violence on campus this year, including hundreds gathering at Burruss Hall five weeks ago to protest.

Thursday morning, President Tim Sands announced a 21-member work group to examine the culture and climate of sexual violence on campus.

“We stand with them. We understand what they have gone through and we want to make the world better and this is what today’s announcement is. It’s a step, an additional step, part of an ongoing process to get to that ideal,” said university spokesperson Mark Owczarski.

Owczarski said the work group is a result of years of work on this issue. He also said there have been more instances of sexual violence this year and it’s unacceptable.

“We agree with the students that we need to do all that we can to change our culture.”

Sophomore Mary Weeks, who is the Treasurer for the United Feminist Movement at Tech, said the university still needs to do more.

“We’re grateful for everything that they are trying to do, but we just feel like it’s not enough.”

Weeks said they also were not consulted before the group was announced, despite sending an open letter weeks ago asking that a task force be made. They also don’t feel represented, because there are only a few undergraduate students out of the 21-member group that President Sands put together.

“We’re the ones getting affected, the undergraduate students. That’s why we feel like we really need representation.”

Weeks said they will continue to push for change, and will be drafting a letter to send to the Board of Visitors, which will meet this weekend.

You can also find UFM’s Formal Response to the formation of the work group below.

“Virginia Tech Community,

Yesterday, President Sands announced a Sexual Violence Culture and Climate Work Group. The twenty-one person committee is focused on preventing gender based violence directed at undergraduate students. Despite this focus, only two students were appointed to the committee. The composition of the group lacks representation and reflects poorly on the University’s response to community outrage.

For meaningful change to happen, the committee will need to examine the offices and departments of Virginia Tech to look for areas where a culture of sexual violence is perpetuated. This cannot happen when the committee is primarily composed of members of those offices and departments. The members chosen for the group do not reflect the university’s commitment to improve prevention and support survivors.

United Feminist Movement (UFM) was not consulted or notified about this working group, despite promises from the administration to actively work with us on any campus wide effort that was developed. Since 1999, UFM has been a voice on university committees advocating for accoutability for sexual harrasment and sexual violence on our campus. With our September protest on the steps of Burruss Hall, we continued leading the call for accountability and transparency from the Virginia Tech administration.

President Sands and the Virginia Tech administration must acknowledge the pervasive nature of sexual violence at our university. Graduate students and underrepresented student groups are an integral part of our community and contribute to the overall campus culture - but were excluded from the committee. By centering the discussion around undergraduate concerns, rather than concerns faced by the community as a whole, administration has overlooked the extensive culture of sexual violence.

We have been calling for marginalized communities to be centered in the comprehensive university-wide action plan. The 2019 climate survey found that marginalized students (women of color, transgender and gender non-conforming students) are disproportionately affected by sexual violence. These voices must be heard. University Chartered Student Organizations and other groups representing these communities need to be offered seats in the working group.

If we want to see meaningful change, we need to have transparency and accountability. Virginia Tech culture surrounding sexual violence was already assessed in 2019 and the University failed to implement changes following the conclusions of the report. For this group to be effective, Virginia Tech must commit to:

1. Including student voices at the table (Graduate Students, UFM and marginalized student groups)

2. Define the group as a task force with outlined powers and responsibilities

3. Outline immediate, short and long term objectives to be implemented

4. Review and remove members of the group that will be unable to provide an critical review of Virginia Tech

5. Have public committee meetings and have upper administration host town halls for community member feedback

6. Provide monthly updates to the community through VTNews and post meeting minutes publicly

Not only does this working group need to include student voices, these voices need to be respected and incorporated into plans. The committee needs to do more than make suggestions after a year of discussion - it needs the power to make swift and concrete structural changes.

The announcement of this working group, in its current form, is a step in the wrong direction and goes against what UFM and the VT community have been fighting for. The exclusionary group composition and the lack of transparency paints a very clear picture of where administration’s priorities lie - and it is not with the student body. They want to protect their reputation over the safety of their students. We, as members of UFM and Hokies, are disappointed.

UFM is calling for a town hall with the administration as soon as possible to discuss committee composition, powers, and short, and long term goals. Until all students are represented, we will continue to push for accountability and transparency.

Sincerely,

United Feminist Movement at Virginia Tech and Allies”

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