Students at the University of Virginia, whose spring semester starts next week, will come back to an environment that is still under intense scrutiny and manipulation.
Fraternities have been reinstated early under a set of new and super-good-on-paper regulations (these were developed internally, and other new sets of regulations will apply to sororities and multicultural Greek organizations as well); there will be more Title IX investigators, sexual assault counselors, lighted crosswalks, Grounds patrol, and video surveillance from local stores and bars; an umbrella of organizations will continue to try to come up with ways to actualize the type of "zero-tolerance sexual assault policy" passed in theory by the Board of Visitors at the end of last year; finally, and worryingly, the Virginia state legislature is dealing with four separate mandatory-reporting bills that would make it a criminal offense for UVA personnel to fail to report any sexual assault or violent felony alleged by a student.
If any of this legislation makes it through, the mandate to report will almost certainly contribute to further victim silence on campus: the Guardian spoke to Sara Surface, a UVA junior involved in the Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition, who said that "the abysmally low level of convictions for rape and other sexual assault complaints were well known to students. So too was the way that police officers, prosecutors and the courts dealt with such cases in ways that could re-traumatize survivors." Surface added:
"Why would you go through all the agony of dealing with the criminal justice system – cops delving into your sexual relationships, asking you whether you were drunk – only for nothing to come of it? If you are going down the mandatory reporting road, you have to make sure that the system is better equipped to deal with survivors of sexual assault in the first place."
The system at UVA—even in its best outcomes—is troubled with the same things that make sexual assault reporting and prosecution and reparation so difficult and complicated everywhere. The criminal justice system outside of UVA, of course, is much worse. And no system (particularly, let's say, the Greek system) is "equipped" to immediately and faithfully and genuinely adhere to massive changes imposed in response to circumstances that remain confusing, doubted, discredited and under attack. The existing frat rules weren't followed very well or regulated honestly when I was a student in Charlottesville, and the actual likelihood of three sober brothers and bottled water and food and no pre-mixed drinks at every party remains—sorority rush, fraternity rush, and the academic semester haven't even started yet—to be seen.
Some of these changes will doubtlessly help students who would otherwise have found themselves in a bad spot. But I worry about the need to demonstrate swift action, which has been imposed on the University of Virginia by a mess that is half theirs and half isn't. I worry that the demonstration will take place over the result, which will play out much more slowly and in much more complicated ways than can be explained in numbers, guidelines, committees. I worry about the fatigue and frustration that students must feel in an environment where external narrative is constantly being imposed on a situation that they know better than anyone else. And I hope that these new rules and additions and implementations feel as helpful to students as they look to the people who they will never affect.
Image via AP.