Just. Say. Sorry.
It’s not that hard.
When it comes to campus responses to sexual violence, we’re hard pressed to think of a single school that is “getting it right.” Although we’ve seen some progress in recent years, our colleges and universities have been getting it wrong for a very long time. No one can deny that. So why do none of them admit it? Why has only one university president in all of the U.S. acknowledged that his school has let down students in the way it’s handled sexual assault and publicly apologized for it?
In the last couple of years, we’ve seen many schools issuing broad proclamations about everything they’re doing to address sexual assault now that the world is watching, but few acknowledging the harms they’ve caused and enabled behind closed doors. We’ve seen many schools congratulating themselves for rolling out new sexual assault policies and procedures — often, only after enduring a PR nightmare or being compelled to do so by the Office of Civil Rights — but almost none apologizing for the institutional failures that necessitated those new policies.
It’s time that schools hold themselves accountable for their past and current failures in addressing sexual violence in their communities. It’s time that schools apologize to students for whom they’ve contributed to a sense of institutional betrayal and re-victimization. It’s time that schools lead by example and demonstrate the integrity they are supposed to advance by taking responsibility for their failures, and do the bare minimum to show current and prospective members of their community that they’re worthy of the trust they so desperately need.
A little “mea culpa” can go a long way
Hint: it starts with an apology
Many survivors of campus sexual violence feel ignored and sidelined by their schools. This ongoing harm is both invalidating and re-traumatizing. It is an extension of the original trauma they endured as well as the sense of institutional betrayal that too often accompanies this violence. Every missed opportunity to acknowledge and apologize to these students hurts survivors and the community at large. The good news is that every school has a powerful remedy at their disposal — the opportunity to apologize — and the power to make an immediate difference.
Every single school in the U.S. has a long way to go in terms of ensuring the safety of their students by continually reexamining and improving their efforts to prevent and respond to sexual violence within their communities. Our schools have an even longer road ahead of them if they’re ever going to even begin to win back the trust of the students they’ve failed and whose trauma they’ve compounded with inadequate and sometimes overtly harmful responses. We’re not suggesting that these problems can be solved overnight.
However, there is one huge step that every college and university can take that would not only demonstrate their commitment to their students, but have a potentially tremendous impact on survivors’ healing and their administration’s culture: #JustSaySorry.