Trigger Warning: sexual assault.
“For a Better CWRU” is the name of the task force created this past summer to address issues of diversity, inclusion and advocacy on Case Western Reserve University’s campus. However, when I look at the Sexual Misconduct Committee members and the proposal, I cannot help but wonder if this is just an attempt to better protect the university from liability. When addressing sexual abuse and violence in any institution, we must prioritize the safety and well-being of the victims and survivors. When we fail to do so, we fail to keep the rest of the institution safe from perpetrators.
The proposal drafted by the Sexual Misconduct Committee does not do this. Let me explain why. In my work as a victim advocate for adults who have been sexually abused as children, and as a survivor myself, I have seen and know firsthand that the most difficult thing to do is to take the first step and tell one person about the sexual assault, regardless of when it happened or who did it. The fear of not being believed is very real. The fear of being blamed is also very real. And the fear of your friends and family members taking your abuser’s side keeps many people quiet. When a student is abused on campus, whether it be by a fellow student or by a faculty or staff member, there is an additional fear of feeling unsafe on campus and sabotaging their education by speaking up. Going to the university’s in-house counsel or a staff member trained and retained by the university just increases the very real fear that they will not be heard, believed or supported like they deserve to be. This incredible conflict of interest posed by the task force does not take into account how victims and survivors want and deserve to be treated after a traumatic experience. It appears to be that the school is looking to control the situation from getting out of hand and becoming public again like it did this past summer.
Trauma-informed care has become a buzzword lately. Many use it without understanding its true meaning. True trauma-informed practices create spaces in which the healing and safety of the victims and survivors take precedence above all else. The victims and survivors are not responsible for educating and protecting others. There is no fighting for scarce resources that may otherwise be given to the perpetrators if the victim and survivor is not deemed worthy enough. Justice looks different because the mindset and total approach is different. I fail to understand how eight more hours of training can transform an investigator into a trauma-informed professional when said investigator is still working for the university, while there is still a conflict of interest that does not consider the victim and survivor’s trauma and where it happened. It happened on the university’s property, perhaps with two students in the university, or perhaps with a faculty or staff member and a student, or a student organization— and the institution is supposed to investigate itself without bias? And a student who just went through a difficult sexual trauma is supposed to open up and trust that this process will be fair and without prejudice?
It is only logical and humane that the university attempts to protect itself and those it employs. In courts, judges are expected to hold themselves to this standard as well and recuse themselves if there is a conflict of interest. I liken this situation to a sexual abuser offering their spouse as attorney to the victim and survivor in civil litigation against them. No one would accept such an absurd offer; the conflict of interest is so clear and obvious.
Instead, I propose a different solution. All services, hotlines, training, advocacy and investigations should be offered by outside agencies. The school can partner with the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center to offer trainings on campus. They do a wonderful job and have a 24-hour Crisis & Support Hotline. And if students need victim advocacy services, they can go there as well. The advocates there are trained in authentic trauma-informed practices and can guide victims and survivors in finding the path that suits them best in going forward after sexual assault. One of the most important points we have been taught as social workers at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences is that we are not there to tell our clients what we think they need, but to listen and provide them with what they tell us they need and want. In creating a better CWRU, we need to listen to victims’ and survivors’ voices and understand what was done wrong in the past, so a better CWRU is a safer and healthier CWRU going forward.
Rebecca Joseph is a first-year graduate student at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences and has been a victim advocate for victims of sexual assault for over a decade.