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Campus Sexual Assault And Abuse: A Common Sense Approach To Doing the Right Thing

Faced with evidence that sexual assault has been ignored and even covered up, college leaders are talking about improving honor codes and campus judicial groups. That’s not enough.  According to a 2007 National institute of Justice study, 1 in 5 women will experience a rape or an attempted rape at some point during college. 

Ending sexual assault and abuse at colleges requires real change at colleges—not incremental change but transformational change, nothing less than sweeping systemic restart of the culture of American campuses.  As someone who works for an agency that serves and advocates for survivors of sexual violence, I can state definitively that college leaders need to do far more, and do it immediately, to prevent more incidents like the ones that have recently caused self-scrutiny at Amherst, Harvard, Brown, Vanderbilt, Tufts and other campuses.

Releasing the findings of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, Vice President Joe Biden last week called for colleges to survey students about assault and publicize a website that will support survivors and keep tabs on enforcement. That’s a start, but a website isn’t prevention. First we need to change individual beliefs, attitudes about sexual violence and behavior of campus faculty, counselors, campus police and, of course, students.

Since our founding in 1979, we at the Center for Safety & Change Inc. have seen the realities of sexual violence every day.  We recommend five common-sense points for college leaders:

1.      Recognize that that the roots of this behavior start well before college.    The influences of societal beliefs about sex, consent, and entitlement of one partner to control another are as widespread as the air we breathe.   Campus sexual violence is everyone's issue.  Engage men and bystanders in this work. It is everyone's job to create a campus where equality and respect are now the norm.

2.      Be clear on the culture and the responsibilities of your campus before students accept admissions offers.  When they visit, emphasize that this campus has no room for those who abuse others.  Be transparent,  spread the  word about clearly defined acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, and give clear information to survivors as well as bystanders about where and how to make reports, their rights, and options.

3.      Make sexual abuse and its relationship to bullying and other abuse a required part of the first-year curriculum.  Sexual abuse does not happen in a vacuum.  It is but part of a continuum of abuse and oppressive behaviors that includes sexism, racism and heterosexism.  All must be addressed to make meaningful campus culture change.  Infuse prevention messages in all elements of college life, not just first year student orientation.  Students should be given prevention information programming every year, through multiple avenues.  This can include infusing messages and topics cross curriculum, in athletics, student clubs, and in residences.  Require all students, faculty, and staff participate in training and hold them accountable if they don't attend.  

In terms of process and intervention:

4.      Create transparent adjudication processes that help students feel that they are enrolled in a campus that supports them.  Colleges should understand that those who sit on councils for honor codes or policy reviews regarding adjudication of students often lack the skills, training or experience to determine the perpetrator in a “he-said, she-said” situation.  Colleges should partner with local not-for profit sexual and dating violence advocacy organizations, with experience in prevention and dealing with sexual assault and abuse. Every college adjudication panel should include as a “silent member” an expert consultant from that not-for-profit organization to provide expertise and advise on these cases.

5.      Colleges must coordinate each investigation among campus safety, local law enforcement, and prosecutors both to ensure appropriate evidence collection and investigation and also to ensure survivors are given the appropriate legal options in reporting the incident criminally.  Refer survivors to the nearest sexual violence organization for services.

 

Sexual assault can be prevented. Boys can learn not to rape.  To make this happen, every student and every college employee should know the definition of sexual violence and consent.  They need to believe that their college is a safe place that does not tolerate violence and will hold perpetrators accountable.  We have learned that with a comprehensive prevention plan and coordinated community response, you can create a safer campus community.

 Kiera Pollock, LMSW, is the Deputy Executive Director of Programs and Clinical services at the Center for Safety & Change, Inc. in New City, NY. kpollock@centersc.org

 

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