Webster University will no longer require current undergraduates to participate in the university’s online sexual assault prevention course. The university will instead focus more on the participation of incoming students. Webster, by making it a requirement for all undergraduates, was going beyond the federal mandate making all U.S. colleges provide sexual assault prevention training for students.
Emails were sent to students last semester stating the sexual assault training, accessed through World Classroom, would be a requirement for all undergraduate students. The course aims to inform students on issues of consent, stalking and bystander intervention and was created by the university. Since it went online last fall, only 29 percent of undergraduates have completed or started the course.
Kalani Seaver, Ambassador of Student Inclusion for the Student Government Association (SGA), said the backtracking on requirement sends the wrong message to the student body.
“If they’re discussing not making it a requirement for students, then they are ignoring the petition we offered last year that said it needed to be a requirement that students go through this, and it is mandatory that students understand,” Seaver said.
Dean of Students Ted Hoef said Webster will not enforce any penalty on students for not completing the course because they could not come up with an effective policy.
“Realistically we could get 10 people in a room and come up with 20 ideas in terms of what would happen to people if they didn’t do it, and there could be problems with all 20 of those,” Hoef said.
A Nov. 12 email from the Office of Student Affairs told students Webster must offer the course or risk the loss of federal financial aid eligibility for the university.
Currently, students will be able to graduate without participating in the training.
“The message we were trying to send is that we believe this is very important; all of our students should undergo the training,” Hoef said.
Hoef also said using the word required was a strategy to get more students to complete the class.
Seaver said the group Students Against Sexual Assault and others challenged the university last year on its sexual assault and harassment policies and practices. Seaver left last year’s talks with administrators saying the course would be a requirement, but they did not know how to implement it. Seaver hopes Webster will decide to make the consequence for not taking the course more punitive.
“This is kind of like a necessary insurance policy on students’ safety that [Webster] just kind of sits there and says isn’t mandatory. I argue that it is extremely mandatory,” Seaver said.
Christiana Chekoudjian, who teaches sociology and women’s and gender studies at Webster, said the course should be a true requirement.
“I think they could have stuck with what they did originally. That would have made more sense logistically and from an educational standpoint,” Chekoudjian said.
Caroline Mevis is a student in Chekoudjian’s class and said the university’s pull-back of the requirement is a step backward.
“It’s ridiculous. A lot of people come to college campuses not knowing what consent is, and I think it’s important as college campuses are big risk areas for sexual assault,” Mevis said.
Hoef said the university’s goal is to still get as many students as possible to take the course, but enforcing the training would be difficult.
“We don’t have an easy answer to – ‘If you don’t take it (the course)… this will happen,’” Hoef said.
Associate Vice President, Chief Human Resources Officer and Title IX coordinator Betsy Schmutz said in a statement, “The University will continue to evaluate all available options to ultimately achieve full participation. However, it is our strong preference to focus on educating and informing rather than imposing punitive measures for non-participants.”
“What we have focused on, going forward, is new students,” Hoef said. We started out attempting to reach all students. From this point, we’ll be focusing on each term. Every time we have new students, we’ll be enrolling them in the course.”
Daphne Slade is president of Students for Sexual Health and Reproductive Rights, a Webster student organization. She took the course to see what it was like, rather than because she believed it was required.
“The program is not very good at all. I could do it in five minutes. It was supposed to be a half hour and you could pass through everything. It’s not like you’re really learning much,” Slade said.
Like Seaver, Slade said the issue of how to administer educational programming around sexual assault comes down to consequence.
“A lot of universities are now putting holds on your account if you haven’t taken it. They’re not going to let you register for your classes next semester,” Slade said.
Saint Louis University requires completion of their version of the course and clearly spells out the potential penalty for students who do not comply in a statement on the college’s website: “Failure to complete the training may result in a hold being placed on your student account, however, this would only happen as a last resort.”
Seaver said until everyone knows how to navigate issues like consent, programs like the training course will have to be an investment because the issue is one of the larger aspects of student safety.
Seaver also said Webster does care about students but does not show it when they abandon policies like this.
“There’s so many things this campus could do to ensure the students are well taken care of, but they don’t do it. Webster doesn’t seem to acknowledge if they just developed a better relationship with students, more students will actually want to come and stay,” Seaver said.