Samantha Russell is in her senior year at American University. And in her time on the Washington campus, so much has changed.

To start with, when Russell arrived as a freshman in fall 2014, a program known as Empower AU wasn’t even around.

As someone who helps educate her peers about staying well, she can tell you all about Empower AU: It involves students working with fellow students, teaching about consent, boundaries and what resources are available. It began a few years ago, during a time of increased national attention on the issue of campus sexual assault — a time of sweeping change and vocal concern across the country.

“Freshmen come in, and it’s almost an icebreaker with them, meeting their now-peers but also learning these new topics and learning that it’s okay to talk about sex, it’s okay to be open about this stuff, it’s okay to ask questions,” said Russell, an international relations major from Scituate, Mass.

In recent years, a subject once consigned to the shadows — sexual abuse, along with its victims and perpetrators — has moved into the spotlight. It remained a focus at the start of this school year as students arrived on campuses and the Trump administration announced changes to guidance on Title IX, the federal anti-discrimination law.



The Association of American Universities, a group of research universities in the United States and Canada, followed up on its 2015 survey with a report in April that pointed to increased staffing, training and student support.

All the responding schools had changed (or were working to change) education and training for faculty and students in the past three academic years. The reportindicated that schools were dedicating more attention to training their campus communities on how to step in during troubling situations.

“There is no magic bullet,” the report said, “or one-size-fits-all approach: Universities have undertaken a wide variety of actions including increased and targeted training, greater awareness-building, better coordinated data collection . . . and greater levels of collaboration within institutions and their communities.”

In its short time at the institution, for example, Empower AU has already become a point of pride at the school, which was recently lauded for its sexual-assault prevention efforts.

Mickey Irizarry, director of American University’sstudent wellness center, pointed to the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter that laid out guidance for schools on handling sexual-assault complaints as a turning point. At the same time it came out, she said, there was a push from students who had a “desire to hold their university accountable to do this type of programming” and do work around the topic.

George Mason University in Fairfax

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke on George Mason’s campus in September, delivering remarks vowing to replace a “failed system” of campus sexual-assault enforcement. Later that month, the Trump administration rescinded the Obama-era guidance.

Even with the changes, Pascarell, George Mason’s vice president for university life, said she did not expect her institution or others in higher education to backtrack, a sentiment Williams echoed.

“With the advocacy that we’ve seen and the commitment that institutions have made to their students, they’re not going to let us go backward, even if folks wanted to,” Williams said. “The cat’s out of the bag a bit here, in terms of this being the expectation that students have when they arrive on campus.”

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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