Virginia Tech President Tim Sands met this past week with the Sexual Violence Culture and Climate Work Group for a mid-semester update on progress being made toward advancing Virginia Tech’s commitment to addressing sexual violence within the university community.

Sands established the work group in November and charged it with developing a framework for “cultural transformation” at Virginia Tech. He tasked the group with not only looking at ways to address sexual violence but also the underpinnings that allow sexual violence to occur.

The group, which consists of 26 members from various departments throughout the university and student representatives, held its inaugural meeting in November and has been meeting regularly since. Katie Polidoro, the university’s Title IX coordinator, chairs the group.

“President Sands has asked for us to come up with a framework for implementing culture change — one that is going to be sustainable, creates a shared responsibility across the university, and engages faculty, administrators, and students alike,” Polidoro said.

The work group has made progress in multiple areas since being formed – the most important of which centers on student involvement. The work group conducted an application process in late January to seek student members, and approximately 130 students volunteered to be a part of the ongoing process. The work group broke into six subcommittees, dedicated to the following areas: assessment, communications, community engagement, sustainable climate and cultural transformation, implementation of the 2019 End Sexual Violence Committee recommendations, and transparent operations. Five of the six subcommittees feature student members.

Additionally, a student-focused event was held in February. The event was two-fold: to educate students on the work being done by the group and to elicit feedback from the students. Approximately 65 students attended. Students who were not selected for subcommittees will still have a voice.

They have been asked to serve as ambassadors to the work group, attend and promote community events, participate in informal surveys, and function as a focus group to evaluate and provide feedback to initiatives being planned by the work group and subcommittees.

Paolo Fermin, a senior from Alexandria, Virginia, is the undergraduate representative on Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors and a member of the work group.

“We’ve got a lot of diverse student opinions who have very strong feelings on this issue,” Fermin said. “It’s great to hear those and to hear the administration be challenged on some aspects. Sometimes, they don’t understand the student perspective, and there needs to be challenges to have some real compromise and agreement and real solutions.”

Caroline Lohr, a junior from Broadway, Virginia, is the undergraduate student senate president and also a member of the work group.

“What the work group is trying to do with these different subcommittees is attack a big problem from all these different angles, and when you add student perspectives, it offers more insight and angles, which can be a little frustrating because it’s a lot of information,” Lohr said. “However, I thought it was great because students came to the event, they had ideas, they were passionate, they were ready to talk, they were engaging, and they were talking about what would be best for themselves, their friends, and the community.”

In addition to securing student voices, the work group is on track to meet some significant goals, including:

  • Plans for a new website: a centralized hub that lists prevention measures, existing prevention programs at the university, the reporting process for victims, and, arguably most importantly, the resources for victims. The group hopes to launch this webpage by early summer and promote it throughout the summer before students return for the fall semester.
  • Improvements to the email crime alerts being sent to the campus community once an assault occurs:  an alert required by a federal law known as the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. A subcommittee remains dedicated to restructuring that email to provide more useful information, including how to keep safe, as well as exploring ways to keep the community better informed about law enforcement and university responses to reports. A draft of new materials should be finished by the end of the semester.
  • Plans for a universitywide prevention campaign: Though created by and for Virginia Tech, many of its components will come from models that have been studied and proven to work at other institutions. The group will finalize details over the summer and make plans to launch the campaign at the start of the fall semester.
  • The creation of a framework of shared responsibility, like that of InclusiveVT, to engage groups of student leaders and campus administrators. This framework will include utilizing the new Residential Well-Being program to further the goal of culture change.

The unveiling of such work fits within a group goal of being transparent with the campus community. The group wants to communicate regularly with the community about sexual violence and harassment by taking advantage of existing platforms such as the university’s website, publications, and social media channels. Members also want to take advantage of such national initiatives like Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Domestic Violence Awareness Month to reinforce their messaging.

The work group and its subcommittees will continue to meet weekly. There is much work to be done, and those who serve on the group know that they are just taking the first steps toward culture change.

“It’s a little disheartening in that sense because, as we continue to do the work, incidents continue to happen, and people continued to become victimized,” Fermin said. “As always, with such a huge university — 30,000 students and thousands of more administrators and graduate students — change can only happen so quickly.”

“The message that we heard from President Sands is that this is not a one-academic-year work group. This is something that will be an ongoing task, and the solutions that we come up with have to be long term,” Polidoro said. “While we may be focusing our attention today on undergraduate students and the start of the fall semester, we must move past that next year and look at the unique needs of returning undergraduate students, graduate students, and our employees.”

Fermin added, “I like the direction that the committee is going. We all acknowledge that it’s a huge problem, and it needs careful planning to solve and careful deliberation, but it’s also a challenge to acknowledge that the scope of the work is large. It’s not something I’m going to see done. It’s something that the next generation is going to see the effect of, hopefully, if all goes well.”

Individuals who wish to provide feedback can submit written comments through the group’s website.

Those looking for additional resources and information related to sexual violence and harassment may do so by reaching out to any of the following sources:

  • Women's Center at Virginia Tech: 540-231-7806
  • Women's Resource Center of the New River Valley: 540-639-1123
  • Katie Polidoro: Title IX Coordinator: 540-231-1824
  • Cook Counseling Center: 540-231-6557
  • Dean of Students Office: 540-231-3787
  • Virginia Tech Police Department: 540-382-4343

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