By DELLA HETHCOX
In response to the events during the last academic year, the University of Mary Washington made many changes in hopes of cultivating a more compassionate and unified campus community.
For instance, this semester UMW introduced the New Civility Series, a multi-part series of forums concerning the issues of racial and cultural intolerance, feminism and diversity on campus. The forums began Sept. 10 and will continue through November.
“These are topics important to students, but also to staff, faculty and administrators,” said Leah Cox, special assistant to the President for Diversity and Inclusion, according to University Relations. “The open dialogue along with the chosen presenters will allow for open discussion, and the opportunity for everyone to learn and become engaged in a meaningful way.”
As part of the series, three screenings of “The Hunting Ground” will occur in the Fredericksburg area. The last showing is Sept. 19 at 9:30 a.m. in the Paragon Village 12 Theatre.
This documentary examines the issues that victims of rape face on campus as they deal with the unwillingness of college officials to acknowledge the rising issue of campus sexual assault. Colleges large and small are part of this sexual assault epidemic and the common tale told by students was that their colleges were unwilling to give them resources and support in response to their assaults.
Written and directed by Academy Award nominee and Emmy winner, Kirby Dick, and produced by Amy Ziering, the film premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and was broadcasted on CNN.
During a forum at Sundance, Ziering said that she and Dick were inspired to create this documentary after female students responded to their previous documentary and pointed to the similar situation occurring on college campuses. The previous documentary was “The Invisible War,” which deals with sexual assault in the military.
For students at UMW, this documentary sheds light on the every growing issue that every campus is facing. From 2011 to 2013, 21 instances of forcible sex offenses occurred on and off the UMW campus, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.
Allyson Poska, history department chairwoman and director of the Women and Gender Studies program, said that hosting this film was a six month process. In addition to UMW and Germanna Community College, local organizations such as Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault, RCASA, and The Women and Girls Fund aided in the hosting.
There was not a single empty chair in The Digital Auditorium at the Information and Technology Convergence Center on Tuesday evening. Audience members shuffled in quietly, slipping into seats, some even pulling out tissues just in case.
The hour and 43 minute documentary is propelled by the actions of two University of North Carolina Chapel Hill students who, after being sexually assaulted, found their university unwilling to help them. On their own, Annie Clark and Andrea Pina discovered Title IX, and soon found similar stories at colleges all across the nation. After filing their own complaint, their efforts sparked a federal investigation into more than 50 colleges and their mishandling and underreporting of campus sexual assaults.
The film emphasizes the lack of victim support for both male and female survivors and the lack of action colleges take against sexual predators.
Major highlights also included similarities between all colleges as they protected both fraternity members and athletes, groups which bring in the most money for a university.
Many faculty members interviewed during the film said the same thing: that a university will always protect the institution before the students.
This was a pattern that every victim soon discovered during the film, as they continued to attend class with their assaulter and the dismissive attitude of their college.
Despite the heavy tone of the documentary, it ended on a hopeful note as Clark and Pina continue to help victims navigate through their trauma and, at the same time, teach them how to file a Title IX complaint with the government against their universities.
After the screening, a forum comprised of psychology professor Chris Kilmartin, Leah Cox and RCASA Community Services Coordinator David Shafer took audience questions. Students and members of the community inquired about how UMW is dealing with issues of sexual assault, and they all agreed that it would take time.
“We have begun moving forward, funding is beginning to take place from getting programs to getting the community and individuals across campus to help stop these things,” Cox said. “It’s gonna take time. But now that we’ve started dedicating time and money and resources to the issue, it’s going to begin to change.”
“It’s a student movement that really pushes the campus,” Cox said. Kilmartin spoke candidly in response to one student’s question concerning social media and the university’s course of action.
“We had a horrible year last year. We had people getting threatened with rape and death on campus over social media. We didn’t respond very well to that,” Kilmartin said.
“We need to learn from that lesson, that experience and take better steps…we’re proposing that we need to educate every student on respect and inclusion. And every top level administrator,” Kilmartin said, adding that real cultural change would come from educating those in higher up positions about sexual assault.
Julia Peterson, a junior American Studies major, attended the film for extra credit but also because of its relevance to UMW. “In my classes we’re engaging a lot with issues of sexuality and equality on campus, I know just from talking to other students and hearing about things in the news about things that had happened last year and with things on YikYak,” Peterson said.
For Peterson, the film helped bring awareness to the issue of sexual assault in a non-threatening and interesting way. Compared to online classes or fact sheets, the addition of a personal narrative made the issues more real.
“I knew the statistics [about sexual assault] were pretty grim…I think this is a really important issue and I think that a lot of times when there are sexual assault trainings and online forms, it becomes a joke,” Peterson said. “Seeing a film like this and hearing stories from so many survivors, makes it very clear that sexual assault is not a joke and that [sexual assault] education is very important.”
The film echoed stories Peterson heard from victims, that colleges ignored their complaints against their assaulters. “How could administrators and educators, who are supposed to be dedicated to students, ignore and deny the stories [of victims]?”
Like Pina, Clark and the other survivors, there is still work to be done on campuses, but starting a conversation with this film is a step in the right direction.
“We want to see a difference on our campus,” Cox said, referring to the President’s Task Force on Sexual Assault. “We want to think futuristically. It’s making all of think a little more in depth about the issue [of sexual assault].”
If you have been assaulted or harassed, contact UMW Police (540-654- 4444) and Leah Cox, the Title IX Coordinator (540-654-2119).
For preview of the documentary please check out the official trailer here: