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Seattle University

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Stepping It Up

Written by Mike Thee
October 14, 2014

Even before they arrived on campus last month, a significant portion of SU's student body had already taken a course. This year, for the first time, all new SU students-including transfer and law-were required to complete "Think About It," an online training to help them make healthy, respectful decisions. 

The course is part of a wider SU effort to raise awareness around the issue of sexual misconduct, including sexual assault.  Earlier this year, the Department of Education issued new guidelines outlining higher education's responsibilities to address sexual misconduct and other forms of sex discrimination. Additional national attention on the need to find ways to eliminate sexual assault on our campuses came with a White House Task Force report, "Not Alone," issued in May 2014. 

Prior to these developments, Seattle University had already taken solid measures to meet goals outlined in the government reports and guidelines. Those efforts are only increasing. 

"The Obama Administration has renewed the call to college campuses, saying 'More must  be done,'" says Helaina Sorey, who was appointed Title IX coordinator in January. "'More prevention efforts and finding ways for more people to come forward and trust the process.'" 

Nationally, one in five women report having been subjected to sexual misconduct during their time in college. That's a staggering figure in and of itself, but all the more so when unreported cases are considered. (While men are also the targets of sexual misconduct, the overwhelming majority of victims are women.) 

In a letter to campus in February, SU President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., made it clear where the university stands on the issue. "Like President Obama," Father Sundborg wrote, "I am also deeply troubled and concerned about the high incidence of sexual misconduct on college campuses and how these incidents frequently go unreported." 

The university is stepping up its efforts to attack the problem of sexual misconduct on many fronts. In addition to launching the Think About It training, the university has taken the following steps:

  • Appointed Helaina Sorey its first Title IX coordinator, and hired Andrea Katahira to a newly created position of Human Resources Compliance and Deputy Title IX Coordinator
  • Formed the Sexual Misconduct Advisory Board made up of faculty, staff and students
  • Created a Faculty and Staff Sexual Misconduct Guide, resources for student survivors and students accused of sexual misconduct
  • Updated the sexual misconduct website  
  • Conducted education and training sessions

As part of the effort, a resource guide, which can be found here, has been prepared for faculty and staff on how to respond if they become aware of a student who has been subjected to sexual misconduct. (All faculty and staff are required to report such incidents to the Title IX Coordinator.)

This is just one of the many facets of training and education that will only increase in the coming months, says Sorey. She adds that next year a survey will be administered to the campus community to better gauge the state and scope of sexual misconduct on Seattle University's campus.

As Sorey sees it the Obama Administration's intensified focus on the issue has as much to do with holding universities accountable as it does recognizing the unique role they play in forming adults.

"What the Administration is saying," says Sorey, "is that if we're our college campuses need to be a place where unhealthy cultural norms are challenged and reshaped."

"Think About It"  

Ryan Hamachek, director of Wellness and Health Promotion and member of the Sexual Misconduct Advisory Board, has taken the lead in implementing the "Think About It" course at SU.

For years, the university had been offering an in-person session on making healthy choices for incoming first-year students as part of Welcome Week. There was a desire to expand upon that effort and create a program that all new students-including graduate, law, transfer and international-would be required to take.

"'Think About It' was the best option," says Hamachek. Developed by the University of San Francisco, the program was being used by 12 other Jesuit schools when SU adopted it.

To date, nearly three-quarters of all new undergraduates have completed the course as have more than three-quarters of graduate and law students.

"By and large, we have received overwhelmingly positive feedback on the course," says Hamachek. Some comments have included "I'm glad all incoming students are required to take this course" and "This course was definitely a good way of going about topics that are tricky to talk about."

Some ideas for improving the course have also been brought forward-for instance, some of the scenarios presented in the graduate and law version of course do not quite resonate with those students. Hamachek is working with the creator of the program to tweak the content accordingly.

On the right track  

While Hamachek acknowledges that much work remains to be done in responding to the federal government's guidance on Title IX, he believes the university is "on the right track." The success of SU's ongoing efforts, he adds, will require involvement by all faculty and staff. "It's not going to be any one person who makes this happen. This is something we all need to take part in." 

One way, faculty and staff can contribute is to join students in taking the " It's On Us " pledge, a White House initiative. The Health and Wellness Crew (HAWC) student group will be spearheading SU's participation, and in the coming weeks will be inviting the campus community to take the pledge online.

 For more information, visit http://www.seattleu.edu/deanofstudents/sexual-misconduct/.