Sexual and Relationship Respect Committee develops interactive consent training workshops

By NORA PEACHIN

Middlebury is the only school in the NESCAC that does not include a non-online mandatory consent training program in its freshman orientation. Elissa Asch ’22.5, head of the SGA Sexual and Respect Relationship Committee (SRR), is changing that.

Asch began spearheading the effort to institute such a program last summer. Now, she is looking to implement the training in the upcoming February orientation.

Over the summer, she contacted and spoke with representatives from the 10 other NESCAC schools, including wellness directors, violence prevention specialists, and students in charge of organizations equivalent to both SRR and Sex Positive Education for College Students (SPECS) at Middlebury. She interviewed students and/or staff at each school about the sexual health and consent trainings at their schools, focusing specifically on what mandatory orientation trainings they had.

Schools’ programming varied from 20-minute workshops with Title IX coordinators, to speakers, to theatrical performances, to fairs during orientation with tables for all sex-related organizations on campus. The individuals Asch spoke with at each school had specific reasons why they thought programs did or didn’t work for their student body, and spoke about goals they had to continuously improving their trainings.

“It was really useful to create a network, because now I can reach out to them if I’m looking for ideas or support from people working on these issues,” Asch said.

Asch then wrote a proposal with all the information she collected from other schools, which she presented to Civil Rights and Title IX Coordinator Marti McCaleb, and Violence Prevention and Advocacy Specialist Emily Wagner, at the start of this academic year.

Middlebury currently provides mandatory training on sexual violence to all students through Show Some Respect, an interactive online training program by United Educators (UE) that students complete before arriving on campus, McCaleb explained.

“This program includes numerous modules on sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, dating violence, consent, coercion, incapacitation and bystander intervention,” she said. “There are also regular refresher courses offered that students complete throughout their college career.”

McCaleb noted, though, that these trainings “don’t necessarily create opportunity for group dialogue or discussion about the issues. This is where we are currently trying to expand.”

The Office of Health and Wellness Education also provides a mandatory introduction to the Green Dot bystander intervention program during MiddView orientation and offers a six-hour bystander intervention training each semester that has been shown to reduce violent incidents on campus, according to McCaleb.

However, Asch and her fellow SRR members saw a need to expand this programming. According to Asch, adding in-person workshops to the the online workshop would be more effective; students would need to sit together and have real discussions about consent, hook-up culture, drinking culture, and more.

“That’s where real expectations about how we’re going to live together get set,” she said. “When I did my research, Middlebury had the least developed program out of any NESCAC.”

To get the conversation started about what SRR wanted an updated program to look like, Asch wrote a prototype for a consent training workshop.

For orientation workshops, McCaleb proposed “Roll Back the Script,” a theatrical-based programs offered by “Speak About It,” an organization many of the other NESCACs use. Asch and McCaleb hope to see a mandatory workshop implemented during the upcoming February orientation. The pair have discussed including small group discussions, as well as explanations from  McCaleb of the definitions of consent and rape and the college’s Title IX policy, as a part of the orientation training.

Since the interview, McCaleb has secured funding for the “Speak About It” program for this February orientation. 

Asch’s proposal also includes an introduction by McCaleb, in which she would explain the definitions of consent and rape, as well as the Title IX policy at Middlebury.

“I think a lot of preventative training can be too happy-go-lucky, like ‘just say no!’ If you’re really going to take it seriously, you need to get into complexities of what realistic hook-up and drinking culture look like on college campuses,” Asch said. “‘Don’t have sex when you’re drunk’ is not realistic on a college campus. We need to address that.”

Providing effective consent education is incredibly important and incredibly difficult, according to Director of Education for Equity and Inclusion Renee Wells.

“It’s important because everyone needs to be intentional about both asking about the comfort, desires, and boundaries of partners and articulating their own comfort, desires, and boundaries,” she said. “It’s also difficult because consent education isn’t something that can be easily reduced to a slideshow presentation; it requires having nuanced conversations that don’t always have pre-packaged answers.”

Asch is not the first to express concern over Middlebury’s lack of mandatory consent training for students. Students and administrators have made past attempts at putting one in place.

“I stand on the shoulders of student activists and representatives that have come in years before me,” Asch said. “People have tried to do this work and made small changes to the culture in a way that I am now able to get through.” She sees her research into other NESCAC programs and the new administrators as important factors in her success as well.

This fall is the first time in Middlebury’s history that there is a full-time violence prevention education professional on campus (Wagner). Wells’ position is also relatively new.

“We are in a unique position with a significant number of college staff dedicated to these issues, to build greater capacity to support and engage our students in smaller, facilitated dialogues about issues like consent,” McCaleb said.

“My sense isn’t that it was an intentional decision not to offer mandatory consent training,” Wells said. “My sense is that it has been an issue of capacity and what staff have been able to provide in the past compared to what we are working to build the capacity to provide in the future.”

Asch has also reached out to sports team captains and social house presidents asking them to commit their teams or houses to sign up once workshops are available. Over 20 teams and houses have already committed. She hopes to make regular trainings available throughout the semester.

“Conversations about consent require buy-in and a commitment to dialogue. It’s not a ‘once and done’ type of topic,” said Wagner, adding that she is excited about the How Will We Live Together study and its programming recommendations because of their potential to “facilitate those conversations with smaller groups of students and in an ongoing manner.”

Now, Asch is working to find funding to train student facilitators.

“We have SRR members willing to facilitate and train, to take on those emotional and social risks for themselves. We have houses and teams who want to participate, who don’t feel taken care of on the campus. We have a workshop written, that needs to be edited and approved. What we don’t have is training for the facilitators,” Asch said.

McCaleb and Asch are discussing the possibility of hiring professional facilitators for the current consent workshops instead of training student in facilitation.

Asch’s goal is to have some hundreds of students trained in consent by the end of this school year.

Editor’s note: Elissa Asch is the sister of senior news editor Sarah Asch. Sarah was not involved in the reporting or editing of this article.

Correction: A former version of this article misstated the name of the Sexual and Relationship Respect Committee, and misrepresented various details about the timeline and process of the workshop development. That information has since been corrected.

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