Southeast Mo. State president responds to online petition about sexual violence on campus

Updated: Dec. 16, 2020 at 5:09 PM CST
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CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (KFVS) - Southeast Missouri State University President Dr. Carlos Vargas responded to an online petition about sexual violence on campus.

In a letter sent to students, faculty and staff on Wednesday, December 16, Vargas said he has been meeting with people about the petition and the topic of sexual violence on campus.

“As a University President and as a father and grandfather, I can assure you that the way this University works to prevent sexual violence, and to hold offenders accountable, is deeply and personally important to me,” Dr. Vargas said in the letter. “I have read many of your comments on social media, including firsthand accounts of sexual violence from victims. To those of you who have shared your story, I thank you for doing so, and for standing up against this violence and empowering others to do the same.”

Dr. Vargas encouraged students to report incidents of sexual misconduct to a University official. He said they have taken steps to educate students and parents through orientation programs, classroom and student organization presentations; as well as sexual misconduct prevention campaigns.

Vargas said they have also developed peer-to-peer education programs.

As of Wednesday, December 16 at 4:30 p.m., the petition calling on holding Southeast accountable has more than 5,000 signatures.

“This further demonstrates that our community cares deeply and wants to see sexual violence end,” Dr. Vargas said about the petition. “We want the same thing.”

Vargas also addressed questions and concerns about a 16-slide presentation used by the University’s Campus Violence Prevention Program. The presentation was on sexual assault prevention and education.

One slide circulating online talked about nonverbal consent.

“In speaking with staff about the slide and presentation, I was made aware that it is a common industry practice to not just provide definitions, but to also include examples, to help facilitate discussion,” Dr. Vargas said in the letter to students. “We understand your reaction to this, and I will be reviewing our sexual assault prevention and education training materials to ensure they are accurate and that they adhere to best practices and comply with the law.”

In regards to the petition’s claims that the University would rather cover up assaults, Vargas said sexual assault and related crimes and offenses are not and will not be covered up and tolerated.

“To those who have been victims of assault I say, we hear you, we see you, and we believe you,” he said.

Vargas said he will be working with University leaders toward the goal of knowing the statistics on sexual violence, and participating in education and conversations with each other to prevent it.

Some steps he said he will be taking include:

  • Meet with members of Redhawks Rising to hear and ask again for their views and suggestions on this topic. Redhawks Rising is a student organization that advocates for student safety across campus and collaborates to provide appropriate resources for survivors of abuse and support University awareness programs. I have met with its members before and believe that their feedback again now is important in how the University proceeds.
  • Meet with the University’s Students of Concern Team. This group of staff meets regularly to promote a safe and healthy environment on campus and to assist students dealing with issues related to their personal, physical, and emotional well-being. I know the Students of Concern Team is committed to helping every student succeed, and I know they have played and will continue to play a critical role in our response going forward.
  • Meet with various offices and departments, internal and external to the University to ask questions and better understand the University’s response to sexual misconduct. Individuals I will have conversations with include, but are not limited to: the Dean of Students and Office of Student Conduct, the Department of Public Safety, the Center for Behavioral Health and Accessibility (formerly known as Counseling and Disability Services) and the Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney.
  • Review all University trainings and materials on the topic of sexual assault prevention and education. To ensure they comply with the law and adhere to industry best practices. If changes are necessary, they will be made.

He encouraged students to visit the University’s “It’s on Us” section on the website to review the sexual violence policies and prevention page and share their reactions.

On Monday, students received a letter from the Dean of Students in response to comments made about the University’s handling of sexual misconduct cases.

In the letter, Sonia Rucker, vice president for Equity, Access, & Behavioral Health, dean of students, said:

“...any non-consensual sexual activity is prohibited and a violation of the University Code of Conduct. Some key aspects to understand about how the University views and defines consent are:

  • Consent to one form of sexual activity does not imply consent to other forms of sexual activity.
  • Consent may not be inferred from silence, passivity, or lack of active resistance alone.
  • A current or previous dating or sexual relationship is not sufficient to constitute consent.”

She said the University was required by law “to respond to and investigate all reports of sexual violence and harassment regardless of any student affiliations or status.”

“Southeast Missouri State University is committed to fostering an environment that is safe and secure, free from sexual and gender-based discrimination and harassment, sexual violence, dating and domestic violence, stalking and other related misconduct,” Rucker said in the letter. “The University recognizes and abides by its responsibility to increase awareness of such misconduct, prevent its occurrence, support victims, deal fairly and firmly with offenders, and diligently investigate reports of misconduct.”

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