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Shepherd working to reduce assaults

By Staff | Dec 16, 2016

Sexual assault has been a prevalent topic in national media during the last few months, and college campuses in particular have been under a lot of scrutiny.

Shepherd University has faced its own obstacles dealing with sexual assault, according to Annie Lewin and Rhonda Jackson.

Annie Lewin, the Title IX director and special projects coordinator at Shepherd, said the university receives approximately three or four documented reports of assault, dating violence or harassment per semester. Lewin said West Virginia University, which has a larger number of enrolled students, receives approximately seven documented reports of assault per semester.

This semester in particular, the number of assaults at Shepherd University were higher. The Shepherd University Crime Log shows eight cases of fondling, dating violence, stalking and other assault-related crimes happening within the past 90 days.

Jackson, counselor and sexual assault resource coordinator at Shepherd, said the higher numbers aren’t necessarily indicative of higher assault rates.

“An important thing to keep in mind is sexual assault is underrepresented everywhere,” Jackson said. “Higher numbers could simply mean a larger amount of students reporting incidents. We’re striving to create an encouraging environment where students are more comfortable coming forward with reports and information.”

Lewin said of those three or four documented cases, however, only one or two end with prosecution or action taken against them.

“A lot of it has to do with the victim,” Lewin said. “Sometimes the victim doesn’t come forward or is hesitant to take the legal route. We can’t force anybody to press charges or come forward if they don’t want to unless we think it poses an imminent threat to the campus.”

John McAvoy, Shepherd University police chief, said the department does what it can to empower victims and make the legal process as clear as possible.

Shepherd University also has a disciplinary board for dealing with violations of the Student Conduct Code. The investigation process goes through Title IX, a law protecting students from gender-based violence and discrimination, then goes to the university’s hearing board, which is trained in sexual assault and dating violence.

“Expulsion is the highest degree of sanction,” Lewin said. “The minimum punishment for sexual assault is suspension, the length of which varies on a case-to-case basis.”

Dr. Thomas Segar, vice president for student affairs, said sexual assault and exploitation go beyond college campus boundaries.

“It’s an issue going back centuries,” Segar said. “It’s not new, but it finally got the national attention it deserves. I think more people are saying assault is not part of the college experience. It’s not OK, and we’re looking at what we can do to stop it from happening.”

3D Thursdays are one way Shepherd University has combated interpersonal campus violence. It is a weekly day of awareness for interpersonal violence and closely related issues. The program teaches students and faculty about bystander intervention and consent to prevent assaults.

3D Thursday is a way Shepherd University has tried to create a culture of respect, according to Segar. Segar also said Shepherd University and nine other West Virginia universities received a Department of Justice grant through the Office of Violence Against Women because of their efforts against interpersonal violence and assault.

“I think what makes Shepherd different is that we don’t shy away from these issues,” Segar said.

“Some schools want to hide the issues; they don’t want victims to come forward because it might generate bad press. In reality, hiding the issue only creates a more hostile environment. We’re really trying to change the culture here to reduce campus violence.”