by Jen Giacalone
There has been an uptick lately in conversations about sexual violence on rape and sexual assault has remained largely unchanged. We all know that drugs and/or drinking is involved in a staggeringly significant portion of college sexual assault. But teen drinking is part of growing up, is easily as large a problem in itself as sexual assault, and one that is not likely to go away any time soon. We can pick apart youth drug use, the inhumane behavior of young people towards each other online, and the dubious influence of , but there’s an obvious culprit that often gets overlooked: university policies., whether it comes in the form of seeking its causes or examining its effects. While there have been decreases in certain kinds of sexual violence in the general population over the last 10 years or so, the world of higher education has tended to exist in a sequestered little universe all its own, one where the rate of
Just look at the recently-released Campus Accountability Report from , a non-profit group devoted to helping students and their families push for sexual assault policy changes on their campuses. The report detailed a study of 299 colleges and universities, and graded them on their sexual assault policies. The average grade was a C. The highest was a B+. Not one school managed an A rating. A third of these schools did not comply with federal law. According to Tracey Vitchers, at SAFER, around 25 different institutions in the last year have had violations filed against them of either the Clery Act or Title 9 that were specifically around the issue of sexual assault.
Colleges are supposed to provide an annual report on their crime statistics. That’s the essence of the Clery Act. But sexual assaults, stalking, and partner abuse are often not included in these reports, often at the discretion of the schools’ dean, or some other individual or internal disciplinary body that is often more concerned with safeguarding the school’s reputation than providing proper supports for a survivor. It creates an environment in which a student can piece together that assaulting a classmate will likely not bring much consequence.
When Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act earlier this year, it included the often-overlooked Campus SAVE Act, which creates better minimum standards that colleges have to follow. It clarifies Clery and Title 9 to ensure greater transparency around the issue of sexual violence on campus. It requires that students reporting a sexual assault on campus be provided with their rights, assisted in dealing with local law enforcement, and be allowed to make changes in their campus living situation if needed, in order to avoid a hostile environment, to name a few important points. “They’re kind of being forced to look at their under a hard light to see what they are doing, and what they could be doing better,” says Vitchers.
What SAFER does is offer tools for both students and parents to evaluate and understand the strengths and weaknesses of their own schools’ policies, and then arm them with the information they need to push for improvements. While there are no “chapters” to this all-volunteer organization, their one paid staff member actually travels around the country offering trainings at universities on how to tackle this issue on campus and get the students prepared to be advocates for themselves.
For example, one common institutional problem is the turnover of the Dean’s job. Many disciplinary procedures on campuses go through the Dean’s office, but typically aonly serves a three or four year term, so every time a new dean comes in, they have to re-learn the policies, procedures and disciplinary processes. A dean who starts his or her job in July may not be fully prepared to handle an incident that occurs in the first few weeks of school. But one institution that SAFER has been monitoring is actually hiring a Director of Sexual Violence Intervention & Prevention to bridge that gap. This is a relatively simple way to address the problem, and likely to be applicable at other institutions.
But SAFER’s mission extends beyond policy change to actually educating students on subjects like consent, and the touchy matter of risk reduction. Most states do not have real requirements for high school sex education. High school health classes fail kids because they, at best, teach about the mechanics of safe sex, but rarely get into the subject of consent and respecting others’ bodies and boundaries. So very often, when kids are exposed to the conversations that SAFER is promoting on these subjects, they are hearing it for the first time.
There is still a lot of work to do on this issue; misconceptions abound with regard to what a sexual assault looks like, and even who can be a target. SAFER stresses that the trope of the straight, female victim attacked by the straight, male perpetrator is limited, and ultimately damaging, because it contributes to men and LGBT survivors vastly underreporting their own attacks. During our conversation, Vitchers cites a JAMA study that actually shows near-parity between young women and young men as perpetrators of sexual aggression when certain types of assault are included in the metric.
College is a time for growth, discovery, and yes, for a lot of kids, drinking and sex. But we do our youth a disservice if we don’t do everything in our power to make sure that that sex is safe and consensual. SAFER is out there trying to empower students, parents, and faculty to ensure that the university environment will give them that. As with so many seismic changes, it has to happen not only in the hearts and minds of those touched by the issue, but in institutional policy prescriptions as well.
For more information or to donate to support their work, visit the SAFER website at: www.safercampus.org