Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, spoke about sexual assault prevention April 18 at the inaugural It’s On Us Summit.
McCaskill was the keynote speaker at the event, which was organized by MSA and featured sessions from the Title IX office and the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center, dedicated to raising awareness and engaging students in an active dialogue about sexual violence on campus.
McCaskill urged students to confront sexual violence.
“You have a great deal of power,” McCaskill said. “I wanted to come and look you in the eye and encourage you to use that power. You have the power to change this problem. This is a momentous time in our country, as people are beginning to understand that this has been a dirty little secret in higher education for a long, long time.”
McCaskill, whom MSA President Payton Head praised for her career of contribution to the cause, appeared before the attending students, faculty and alumni in Bush Auditorium at Cornell Hall.
“Senator McCaskill’s commitment to sexual assault prevention has been steadfast,” Head said. “Her introduction last year of the Campus Safety and Accountability Act made it clear that she doesn’t just say it’s on us; Senator McCaskill says, ‘It’s on me.’”
McCaskill proposed the Campus Safety and Accountability Act on Feb. 26. The act is intended to improve resources, transparency and training on college campuses.
She underlined the importance of survivors coming forward, even under certain circumstances when the survivor’s judgment is impaired. McCaskill said nothing should hinder survivors of sexual assault from reporting their assaults.
“Victims don’t have to have perfect judgment… There is no reason for victims to feel like that they have to be perfect in order to come forward and hold someone accountable,” she said. “Mistakes in judgment do not give anyone permission to violate you.”
In regard to impaired judgment, McCaskill later said in a Q&A session that alcohol is one of the major difficulties she has had to deal with during this campaign. A compromise in the policy change regarding alcohol is also hard to enact when viewed realistically.
Salama Gallimore, the Title IX investigator, took a similar stance on this issue in her breakout session, pointing out that alcohol consumption could sometimes blur the line and complicate her investigations.
McCaskill also talked about the Sasha Menu Courey case as a moment of discouragement.
McCaskill described the result of the investigation report as “startling” to many in terms of the consequences of the problems that weren’t fully addressed.
She cited Dorial Green-Beckham’s dismissal from the MU football program following a domestic altercation as a moment of encouragement.
She said she had feared that Green-Beckham’s case would end up like “so many other cases across the country… when a victim is not willing to come forward and hold their perpetrator criminally accountable,” especially when the case involves a prominent figure.
McCaskill said this phenomenon has hindered the criminal justice system’s ability to prosecute on a larger scale. She described the circumstances as unfavorable for justice to prevail but praised the university for removing Green-Beckham.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been (more proud),” she said. “No ball game appearance, no NCAA appearance in basketball, none of those have ever equaled that moment for me, and I’ve been following Mizzou sports for as long as I’ve been on this planet.”
McCaskill acknowledged the importance of the actions taken to strengthen sexual assault prevention, including the decision to hire a full-time Title IX coordinator, the implementation of mandatory training for incoming students on rights and responsibilities under Title IX, and the mandated reporter training now required for all employees.
“I have seen every signal from the administration of this university that they are very serious about (sexual assault prevention),” she said.
At the heart of all the programs is the provision for easy, safe and confidential access to help and support for students. McCaskill said that awareness of such resources among students lays the foundation for the campaign’s success.
“It does no good for the administration to work their tails off, putting a great system together, a great process together, to put the personnel in place, to put information on the website, if the students don’t know about it,” she said.
In the meantime, McCaskill stressed the importance of students providing feedback to the administration to further establish a working relationship. MU recently released a campus climate survey through the Association of American Universities to receive anonymous feedback.
“If you are not speaking, no one will hear you,” she said. “And this survey is an invitation to you to speak.”
Responding to a question about MU being viewed as unsafe if reporting rates rise due to mandated reporters, McCaskill said her main concern at this stage is for the survivors. McCaskill said that according to federal law, when a sexual assault is reported, the federally-funded university is mandated to conduct an investigation; yet in her own research, 40 percent of the universities had not done an investigation in the last five years.
“If they haven’t done an investigation, they are not taking it seriously,” McCaskill said. “Reporting goes up in this area means that this campus is doing its job… you want more reporting, and less incidents. And we want to be honest about it.”
Near the end of her speech, McCaskill described the alleged gang-rape by college students on a beach in Florida that was captured on tape, resulting in the arrest of three students who will be facing felony charges, as “a cold bucket of water splashed on the head.”
The survivor was incapacitated and was “clearly being sexually assaulted” while hundreds of others stood idly by.
“When you get to be my age, or maybe at your age, you think to yourself: Can I make a difference?” she said. “Those hundreds of kids, they had that moment, where any one of them could’ve made a difference. And they all missed that opportunity. When you are in a place, that you can make a difference, do it, and you will feel good about it for the rest of your life.”
Katie Harbinson, the It’s On Us MU campaign coordinator, said the collaboration on the event between MSA, the RSVP Center and the Title IX office was aimed at illustrating both learning and involvement in discussing the issue at hand.
“The goal of the 2015 It's On Us Summit was to help attendees learn more about sexual assault on campuses and create a dialogue about ways we can improve our efforts,” she said. “One of the core values of the It's On Us campaign is that everyone can, and should, do something to end sexual violence. In simply showing up, attendees demonstrated their commitment to this core value.”
During the two breakout sessions, students shared their thoughts on pervasive issues that are present in the society, including victim blaming, rape myths and the occurrences of sexual assault on MU’s campus.
RSVP educators discussed rape culture and counter-measures to combat the stigma in one session. Title IX Coordinator Linda Bennett and Title IX Investigator Gallimore covered a variety of topics pertaining to Title IX during their session, ranging from the rights and responsibilities students have, the definition of prohibited conduct, confidentiality in reporting an incident, and counseling, along with procedures that will ensue in a typical investigation.
“Discussions during the It’s On Us summit breakout sessions were lively and students had very good questions, which demonstrated their sincere interest and dedication in preventing sexual violence on campus,” Gallimore said.
MSA Senator Alexander Higginbotham who participated in both of the sessions appreciated the interaction between the presenters and the audience.
“So often at an event like this, you have presenters who talk at you for an hour,” he said. “At the It’s On Us summit, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Presenters from both the Title IX office and RSVP Center did an incredible job of turning these sessions into conversations. It’s through true and honest discussion that all sides are able to be heard and real solutions are found, and today was a tremendous first step in this direction.”
MSA Social Justice Committee chairwoman Greer Wetherington said the summit provided “important feedback and critiques of the current system” that call for action through collaboration of students and administrative powers. Besides igniting curiosity and gaining comprehensive understanding on a personal level, she said that the summit also shed light on the future course of SJC.
“Senator McCaskill’s speech touched on very pertinent concerns throughout history…it’s on us as well as her to educate, advocate, and change the campus culture,” Wetherington said. “What was the biggest take-away for me was this question: What can I do to advocate for change?”