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October 30, 2015

Student concerns prompt changes to O-Week sexual assault education program

The University made changes to its sexual assault education program, UMatter, during O-Week this year in response to student concerns.

During O-Week, first-year students attended one of four different UMatter presentations across campus. Each presentation included a performance by Catharsis Productions entitled Sex Signals, and there was a panel discussion with Orientation Leaders led by a staff member from the University.

The new panel format marked a departure from past years’ discussions after Sex Signals, which were conducted in small groups similar to other Campus Life Meetings. According to Belinda Vasquez, the Title IX coordinator for UChicago, the change occurred as a result of student concerns about consistent messaging across the different small group discussions.

“Oftentimes [in the small groups] things could get derailed either by strong personalities or students who are not as willing to participate in what could be difficult conversations. So we took that feedback and one of the things we decided to do is…really have a specific dialogue with four people who have been specifically trained... who can facilitate the discussion but still involve peers,” Vasquez said.

This year’s changed programming also sought to address student concerns about the content of Sex Signals, namely its heteronormative scenarios.

Jeremy Inabinet, Assistant Dean of Students in the University for Disciplinary Affairs, said that one of the four performances, put on in Ida Noyes’ Max Palevsky Cinema, featured fewer heteronormative scenarios. “The pilot piece at more times focused on the intersection of violence and race, male victimization and how violence can impact those in the LQBTQIA communities.”

Though the one performance was especially conscious of these issues, aspects of the other three presentations were also changed to shift the conversation away from solely male/female scenarios. The three non-pilot programs also included a discussion of LGBTQ issues, race, socioeconomic class, and other issues of power.

Meg Dowd, president of the Phoenix Survivors’ Alliance (PSA), said that discussions between the PSA and University administrators last spring and over the summer played a role in the recent changes. “Our main concern was that all students were familiar with their rights and the University’s policy on sexual assault, in accordance with Title IX,” Dowd said.

Another change implemented by the University and Catharsis Productions centered on making the party scene less of a focus of the skits.

”It’s one of the scenes of many and they explore other scenes in which students may find themselves whether by being a bystander to sexual violence or being a victim of sexual violence,” Vasquez said.

As for next year, Inabinet and Vasquez do not yet know whether the student panel format will remain or be changed again.

“Feedback was collected through the College Programming Office…so we’re looking to see what that data said,” Vasquez said. “It’s a lot of information…we’re not at a place yet where we are exactly sure how we will proceed.”

Despite the University’s attempt to address these issues, some students were still critical of the presentation and had suggestions for improvement.

“While this year’s O-Week programming was significantly improved from the years preceding, we know that one 90 minute presentation in the form of Sex Signals is not sufficient preventative education over the course of four years,” Dowd wrote in an e-mail.

Dowd also cited the University’s integration of Title IX and policy education into graduate orientation this year as another positive step and hopes to see more long-lasting preventative education programs next year.

Michael Ferguson, a first-year LGBTQ student, watched a non-pilot presentation in Mandel Hall and expressed concerns about the heteronormative scenarios.

“Because they only talked about male and female and society’s definition of male and female, I thought they left out a big portion of LGBT students who have very different situations. It was helpful and I know it’s meant for the majority of people but it didn’t apply to me personally,” Ferguson said.

First-year Santiago Thompson criticized the student panel, saying it wasn’t representative of the student body.

“I think the idea of a student panel is good but the execution of the one I was at I didn’t really care for,” Thompson said. “I couldn’t identify with the students I saw on the panel... I feel like it would have been cool to see some athletes up there doing that or maybe some people from Greek life.”

Austin Herrick, a third-year O-Leader from DelGiorno House, discussed the difficulty in striking a balance between student participation and helping students feel safe.

“Going forward, I think it will be important to find a medium between not engaging the students on one hand and having them be sort of spectators versus…having the format in the past which made people feel very uncomfortable or trapped,” Herrick said.

Vasquez emphasized that, while the content and format of the UMatter presentation is constantly improving, the core message to the first years remains unchanging.

“We wanted students to leave knowing…we are here, we are listening and we care. Violence is unacceptable, violence of any kind, and...we will respond to allegations of violence.”

The UMatter program also includes a new website (umatter.uchicago.edu) that contains resources for getting help, finding support, or filing a report after a sexual assault.

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