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The Blue & Gray Press | August 17, 2019

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Leah Cox named to Governor's task force on sexual assault


Leah Cox, special assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion at the University of Mary Washington was recently appointed to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s task force dedicated to combating sexual assault on campuses.

The task force, set to kick off later this week with their first meeting, resembles the task force set up by President Barack Obama earlier this year, which identifies key points in improving the nation’s response to sexual assault, an increasingly vocalized problem on college campuses. The government’s effort to enforce sexual assault policies more transparently will hopefully bring more effective response and problem recognition to campuses nationwide.

As part of the reform, McAuliffe wants Virginia to take the lead on pressuring the commonwealth’s universities to crack down on sexual misconduct. McAuliffe is following Obama’s “It’s On Us” campaign, which urges the nation to actively speak out against sexual violence.

Cox, who will play an integral role in the task force, also had a hand in the recent changes to UMW’s student handbook regarding the university’s sexual assault policies.

“The Governor wants to be on the forefront of this issue. He initiated the task force to make sure combating sexual assault is a topic in the forefront of our thinking,” Cox said.

The new task force will consist of members of security agencies, such as Homeland security and Public Safety, representatives from higher education institutions, law enforcement agencies and any other necessary personnel required to fulfill the duties of the task force.

According to Cox, the group will apply pressure on Virginia college campuses to connect to the atmosphere of the student body. The students on Virginia campuses are now being called on to speak openly about their experiences with the sexual assault policies and how they can be redone to better reflect the needs of the students.

McAuliffe is also aiming to mirror the president’s attempt to engage young men in the subject of non-violence against women in order to build a better future of role models. By forcing Virginia state colleges to engage in discussions about prosecuting sexual assault more harshly, as well as demanding comprehensive intervention and wider understanding of the definition of what unwanted sexual attention is, McAuliffe seeks to pressure colleges into taking a firm stance against sexual assault and lenient policies.

When asked about the impact the task force will have on the future of sexual assault prosecution, Cox was confident about the difference that would be felt around campus.

“Yes, there will probably be change,” Cox said. “We are looking forward in new and different ways.  We hope to push a state-wide level student survey to evaluate the campus climate on sexual assault policies at each college.”

The student surveys Cox refers to are intended to pull data together to gather a larger picture on Virginia campuses’ outlook on policy capability and revitalization. According to Cox, the governor hopes to unite the movement toward stricter sexual assault policies across state schools, rather than by individual campuses.

A large focus of Obama’s and McAuliffe’s individual task forces are on bystander responsibility to report. Both task forces hope to create a feeling of social pressure to report incidences of sexual violence instead of sweeping the issue under the rug.

Universities will be expected to take students’ input into consideration, which could affect the severity of a charge and repercussions of being found guilty.  Colleges will likewise be expected to hold all students and faculty to a higher standard, specifically student-athletes, with no special treatment or lenient definitions of what sexual assault is.

Junior psychology major Kate Schaefer said she is optimistic about the effect McAuliffe’s task force will have on the UMW campus.

“I think this is a step in the right direction, its about time something organized like this happened. This is a step our campus can benefit from,” Schaefer said.

Information about the special task force will be sent to the UMW student body in the coming weeks.