Safety, security, and resources available to students dealing with sexual assault
University focuses on preventative programming and support for victims
Confronting the immeasurable suffering inflicted upon victims of sexual violence, the Virginia Tech community is committed to stewarding an equitable Title IX process, treating individuals with compassion and dignity, and allowing individuals to make choices about how they proceed and heal.
In recent weeks as the fall semester has begun, the Virginia Tech Police Department has followed the university’s federal Clery Act requirements by emailing out alerts that notify the campus community of sexual assaults and where they took place. These incidents, according to Katie Polidoro, the director of Title IX compliance and the Title IX coordinator at Virginia Tech, serve as sobering reminders that the campus community must continue its vigilance, while also caring for victims of sexual assault and sexual violence.
“Our message is this: We care about this and we’re going to do everything we can to prevent these things before they happen,” Polidoro said. “If it does happen, we’re here for you and we care about it.”
“One is too many,” Virginia Tech Police Chief Mac Babb said of the incidents. “Anything beyond zero is unacceptable.”
Babb said that the alerts, which fulfill Virginia Tech’s requirements to disclose information about crimes on or near the campus, illustrate the university’s commitment to being transparent while offering ways to stay safe and providing resources for victims.
“I would be concerned if this was going on and you weren’t getting the alert,” Babb said. “We want to elevate the community’s first line of defense for staying safe — and that’s the community itself. If they’re unaware that things are going on, they’re not going to know what to look for. We’re trying to tell the community this is a concern and here are some things you can do about it to try and make yourself safe.”
So, what is Virginia Tech doing to promote a culture of safety on campus? The simple answer: as much as possible. The university stands committed to prioritizing the safety and welfare of students.
“The trauma inflicted by sexual assault and the tragic consequences for victims goes against everything Virginia Tech values as affirmed in our Principles of Community and commitment to serve and look out for each other,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “The university is united, along with our community partners, in our determination to prevent this intolerable behavior and support the survivors who suffer as a result.”
The proactive commitment to safety, preventative measures, and resources is evident. Anticipating an uptick in misbehavior entering the fall semester because of the return of social gatherings on campus following an 18-month absence, those who work in the police department, the Division of Student Affairs, the Dean of Students, the Office for Equity and Accessibility, the Women’s Center, and other auxiliary areas put together a multi-pronged approach before the fall term began. This approach consists of safety, education, preventative programming, increased messaging, and, for victims, additional measures of support.
Two of Virginia Tech’s prevention programs are coordinated by the Women’s Center and call for student involvement. The Bringing in the Bystander workshop is a program designed to educate and empower students to prevent, interrupt, and respond to harassment and violence. The Women’s Center trains facilitators who then offer 90-minute workshops that teach students how to identify potential situations and the skills in how to intervene.
Virginia Tech officials believe so firmly in the Bringing in the Bystander initiative that they plan on hiring another prevention specialist to reach more students with this program. The candidate search is underway, and the position will be housed in the Hokie Wellness department within the Division of Student Affairs.
Also, to get more students involved in prevention, the Women’s Center sponsors SAVES, which stands for Sexual Assault and Violence Education by Students. The Women’s Center educates students about sexual assault and consent and then trains them to be peer educators, with the goal of getting them to go out and teach their peers about the same topics.
“Historically, we’ve put it on the victims to defend themselves and protect themselves,” said Christine Smith, co-director of services at the Women’s Center. “That doesn’t work, nor is it fair to put that on the victim. As a community, if we have bystanders engaging in the process and who know what the options are to do, then that’s going to be much more effective.”
Polidoro and Babb both echoed similar sentiments. Buy-in from the campus community, especially the 34,000-plus students, is critical to prevention efforts.
That messaging starts as soon as the students arrive on campus. Those who work in Title IX — a federal law that lays the groundwork for the steps that universities must take to respond to, and stop, instances of gender-based harassment, including sexual violence — teamed with the Women’s Center during Welcome Week to teach a session that focused on healthy relationships, consent, bystander intervention, and sexual violence prevention. Welcome Week orientation leaders led the sessions, having received training from those who work in the Title IX area and at the Women’s Center.
In addition, Virginia Tech requires each incoming student — undergraduates, transfers, graduate students alike — to take an online course about sexual assault prevention.
“We want to get the students talking about this,” Polidoro said. “If we say, ‘If you see something, do something,’ then we also need to say, ‘Here’s something you can do.’ Sometimes, it’s meeting students where they’re at and saying, ‘Here are some practical tips’ instead of having an abstract discussion about boundaries.
“We need to be sure we’re truly connecting with students,” Polidoro added, noting she puts together a Student Title IX Advisory Council every year to solicit feedback from around campus. “We need to be sure that we’re talking to them in ways that they care about and that they’re going to listen to.”
The Virginia Tech Police Department, which also offers an array of preventative education programs to curb sexual assaults, continues to reach out to students for discussions about this topic as well. Its Adopt-A-Hall program assigns officers to specific buildings, and the Residence Life Resource Program puts dedicated officers in various residence halls.
“We’re wanting to get the students comfortable with talking to the police,” Babb said. “We want to sit down with them, have conversations, and let them express their concerns. If we can build those relationships, then hopefully they’ll feel more comfortable becoming involved, either by being an active bystander during an assault or by coming to us with information.”
On the other side of the discussion, Virginia Tech offers meaningful support options for those who experience sexual harassment and violence. For those who wish to pursue legal proceedings against a known perpetrator, they can do so through the Virginia Tech Police Department or the Blacksburg Police Department. Those who wish to pursue a Title IX case against a perpetrator may do so through the Office for Equity and Accessibility.
The Title IX process at Virginia Tech ensures a fair and impartial proceeding. Each of the investigators who work on Title IX cases have extensive training and experience investigating gender-based violence. Some have significant experience working in higher education, while others bring years of experience working in law enforcement, social services, and nonprofit organizations to the office.
“I feel very confident that we have a policy that complies with the law, but I feel more confident in the people who implement that policy,” Polidoro said. “Our staff is as committed to being stewards of an equitable process as we are to being compassionate and treating students whom we see with a lot of empathy and dignity.”
In addition to options for filing complaints, the Title IX coordinator can provide support measures, including academic assistance, “no contact" orders, and referrals to resources for students who experience sexual harassment and violence. This support is available whether or not someone decides to file a formal complaint or share detailed information about what happened.
“Our priority is to be sure that students have what they need to succeed and to heal,” Polidoro said. “That looks different for everybody, and we respect the choices any student makes about what feels right.”
Those who work with the Title IX process can provide options to victims, but the Women’s Center, Cook Counseling Center, and the Schiffert Health Center all serve as confidential resources for victims. Specifically, the Women’s Center staff provides guidance on options throughout the entire process, even accompanying victims to proceedings. They provide short-term counseling and assist with coping strategies as well.
Next spring, the Women’s Center plans on offering a support group for survivors of sexual assaults.
“Our role is to support and advocate for what victims are needing, and that can look like a lot of different things,” Smith said. “Everything from they are not sure what their options are to understanding what their options are either through reporting to Title IX and going through that process, or through reporting to law enforcement if they were to choose to report to law enforcement. Part of our role is helping educate them about the options and then advocating for what they want to have happen.”
In addition, the Women’s Center works collaboratively with Cook Counseling Center and closely with the Women’s Resource Center of the New River Valley, a local nonprofit organization that provides programs and services to adult and child victims of sexual and domestic violence. The Women’s Resource Center of the NRV serves as Virginia Tech’s local rape crisis center and offers in-person support for victims who choose a physical evidence recovery kit at a hospital following an assault.
All of these on-campus groups — the Women’s Center, Title IX office, the Virginia Tech Police Department, the Office for Equity and Accessibility, and others — offer resources to prevent sexual violence and support for victims. But each doesn’t do it alone.
On the contrary, each collaborates with the other offices on issues related to sexual misconduct. They collaborate on safety strategies during events, promote each other’s preventative efforts, coordinate outreach to students and other constituency groups, and reinforce each other’s messaging.
“Everybody is collectively feeding resources to this,” Babb said. “We’re all part of a consistent group trying to do something to benefit the whole. It’s not us going out on our own and doing something alone. We’re all trying to support each other’s mission.”
Virginia Tech officials at every level have committed themselves to making this campus safer. But they need buy-in from everyone else in the campus community.
In August, the Division of Student Affairs launched a new initiative titled “This Year. Best Year.” to encourage students to have the best year possible after a difficult 18 months in the pandemic.
That still can happen despite the recent incidents — provided everyone commits to helping each other going forward.
“We all have the ability to impact what our community looks like and feels like,” Polidoro said. “We can all contribute to it being a safe and inclusive place for everyone.”
- Women’s Resource Center of the NRV
- Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance
- National Center for Victims of Crime
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- PAVE (Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment)
- Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN)
- White Ribbon Campaign
- Men Can Stop Rape
- Promoting Health Sex and Intimacy