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After 'wake-up call,' UW rowers say let's talk about sex and consent

When two members of the University of Washington men’s rowing team were kicked off last year for sharing graphic videos of a freshman from the women’s team, senior Max Rennie felt it personally.

“My class and the women’s team class get along really well, so it makes you think someone’s come into our family and almost poisoned it,” Rennie said. “It’s really upsetting.”

It was also a wake-up call.  

“It might have only been one or two individuals,” Rennie said, “but that doesn’t mean that the culture of our team wasn’t like that. I think perhaps it was.”

The men and women’s team are close here; the rowers bond over the rigor of being an athlete.

At 6 on a recent fall morning, the women’s crew team was deep into an indoor rowing session at the Conibear Shellhouse. The machines sounded like waves, and outside the boathouse, the water looked like black glass.

At 6:15 a.m. the men’s team returned from a morning run, and by 6:30 a.m., both teams were loading boats into the water. They practice like this twice a day, six days a week.

In March, members from the men’s and women’s teams formed Student-Athletes Against Sexual Harassment and Assault (SAASHA). All college athletes get training around sexual assault and harassment. But SAASHA member Kate Costanza said it's usually generic.

Costanza said SAASHA speaks to the unique culture of college athletes. “The most important part of SAASHA is that it’s peer-to-peer: Student athlete peer to student athlete peer,” Costanza said.

College athletes are models for younger athletes, and SAASHA recently used that capital to present issues of assault and consent to young rowers at the Pocock Rowing Center in Seattle. 

Rower Ariana Williams, 15, appreciated the frank discussion. “I feel like a lot of people don’t explicitly think about these things,” Williams said.

Her friend Alli Wicklund chimed in. “If you didn’t talk about this kind of thing, I don’t think you would know that it’s okay to speak up, and that it’s okay to not be okay in certain situations.”

The rowing team is not the only student group to push for more awareness and education around sexual assault.

Student employees recently wrote harassment and prevention training into their union contract.

Additionally, in response to feedback, UW recently dropped a bystander intervention program called Green Dot, which it had been presenting since 2010.

Valery Richardson, UW’s Title IX coordinator, said the Office of Student Wellness will be debut a new program, in addition to other training offered.

“Green Dot as a program is something that I think the University of Washington feels like we've outgrown,” Richardson said. “I think bystander intervention is a strong, evidence-based model. So we want to continue to do that work, but probably under our own sort of curriculum-development model.”

In the most recent campus climate survey nearly one-quarter of the overall UW student population said they experienced an incident of sexual assault.

But statistics don’t favor reporting or prosecution when it comes to sexual assault.

“There's no doubt that it's lengthy and burdensome. And I have a lot of compassion for folks who say, 'I don't want to come forward,'” Richardson said.

To help, the UW student body group passed a resolution in support of using Callisto, an online tool that gives users the ability to enter details of their assault and decide what to do later.

Richardson believes Callisto would appeal to students comfortable with technology.

“There's a lack of trust with an institution,” she said. “If we have this third-party platform that is collecting and holding the data in kind of an escrow mechanism, then that feels more trustworthy to students.” 

Richardson said the addition of this reporting software is an important part of the evolution of UW’s effort to combat sexual assault and raise awareness for students.

For rower Max Rennie, awareness is a step.

“If you want to be a part of our team, which is the men’s and the women’s team, then we have a zero tolerance policy for this stuff,” Rennie said.