Sexual Assault Awareness Increasing on College Campuses
Posted By Donna Fuscaldo on April 21, 2016 at 9:14 am
April is sexual assault awareness month, but rewind five years ago and even talking about sexual assault on college campuses was taboo. An unofficial “don’t ask, don’t talk about it” policy was common at colleges and universities around the country.
However, in recent years, college students, non-profits, activists and the White House have worked to push this very serious issue into the forefront of the conscience of millions of Americans. After all, how many people knew just five years ago that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted during college, with many of the crimes happening in their freshmen or sophomore years, or that most of the assaults go unreported?
This push by different groups has prompted amendments to laws, viral documentaries and entrepreneurs who are trying to find ways to protect their peers from sexual assault. It’s even spurred President Obama to declare April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, calling on all Americans to do their part to stop this problem that has reach epidemic levels and takes away a person’s basic rights to safety and security.
“It Happened Here,” a documentary profiling five student survivors of sexual assault hit the air in 2015. “When we began filming in 2013, about four, five or six schools were under investigation, and now there are over 120,” says the film’s producer Marjorie Schwartz Nielsen. Today, the documentary is screened on college campuses across the country. “So much has happened. Social media has catapulted the issue into the national conversation. There’s a tremendous amount of awareness, which was a long time in coming.”
Attitudes about sexual assault on campuses changing
Over the last few years, a lot has changed to empower victims and protect students on college campuses around the country. Take the Jeanne Clery Act, which was put into law in the 1990s and requires all colleges and universities that get federal funding to share information about crime on campus and what they are doing to improve campus safety. The information has to be made public and accessible through the school’s annual security report.
The Jeanne Clery Act was amended in 2013 to include The Violence Against Women Act, which expands the rights afforded to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking or dating violence on college campuses. That meant by July of last year, colleges and universities had to update all of their policies and procedures for campus safety to include crimes of dating violence, domestic violence and stalking. What’s more, institutions have to maintain credible documentation that substantiates their crime statistics.
“The 2013 amendment requires campuses to have ongoing education available for new students, and they have to evaluate the education,” says Alison Kiss, executive director at the Clery Center for Security On Campus. As a result, she says, “We’re seeing campuses, by and large, realize they have to have more robust educational programs.”
In addition to amendments to the Clery Act that hold schools accountable for sexual assaults and providing education around preventing it, there’s also more awareness of student’s rights under Title IX, which prevents sex-based discrimination in education and requires schools to establish procedures to handle complaints of sexual discrimination, sexual harassment or sexual violence. It also requires every school to have a Title IX Coordinator to manage complaints.
“Students are more aware of how to file complaints against colleges and the whole student activist movement is giving a face to students who typically don’t come forward,” says Kiss. “It’s a perfect storm of those things coming together that results in an increase in reporting.” While 1 in 5 students experience sexual assault on college campuses, the victims, historically, don’t press charges. Often, there is alcohol involved and the victim pushes it out of their mind, hoping it will all go away. Victims also often face legal, administrative, academic and socio-cultural backlash, which, up until recently, has made the decision to report campus sexual assault all the more difficult.
Recent stories of mishandling of campus sexual assault demonstrate that much work is still to be done to protect victims that do come forward. The University of Kansas is facing multiple lawsuits for allegedly mishandling reports of sexual assault and failing to protect the victims. There’s also a lawsuit underway against Brigham Young University, which put a female student on academic hold for violating the religious university’s ‘Honor Code’ after she reported being sexually assaulted off campus, according to the Washington Post.
Students taking on the cause in unique ways
Student activism on the part of college students has long been a staple of earning a degree. But in recent years, thanks to social media, it has taken on a life of its own, particularly when it comes to sexual assault and sexual awareness. Take the documentary “It Happened Here” as one example. The film, which follows five survivors of sexual assault as they use their experiences as a way to exact change, quickly went viral when it debuted and is now shown on college campuses and even in high schools.
“This modest little movie is generating conversations nobody wants to have and is being used as a tool for education and awareness,” says Nielsen. “The movement has grown exponentially and meteorically. Women are really stepping up.” Victims are becoming much more vocal and activist groups are encouraging students to share their stories online, both through the written word and videos.
Greater awareness about sexual assault has even spawned a handful of startup companies that are creating apps and products to help potential victims from being assaulted or help them after being sexually assaulted. Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a nail polish called Undercover Colors that reacts by changing colors if a drink has been spiked. Plus, there are mobile phone apps like My Panic Alarm and SOS iEmergency, which allow a potential victim to sound a loud alarm, or SEND Help, which shares location and sends alerts to social media and friends and family.
Looking beyond the victims to society as a whole
The focus has expanded beyond victims to bystanders, too. Initiatives and other films are exploring what constitutes consent and reexamining the role men can play in preventing assault. There’s a stronger emphasis being placed on how bystanders can prevent sexual violence, and men are taking greater leadership in addressing the issue of sexual assault. A 2014 public service announcement on ending sexual assault, “1 is 2 Many,” featured President Obama and Vice President Biden, as well as an all-male cast of celebrities like Benicio Del Toro and Steve Carrell, among others.
Put together, the efforts highlight a movement that doesn’t seem to be slowing down. “The more we talk about a topic that was taboo only twenty years ago or maybe even five years ago, the more understanding of it and the more we will see change,” says Kiss.