University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sophomore Landen Gambill, center, stands with supporters during a rally Friday, March 1, on the steps of the South Building on campus. Gambill was informed last week by the student-run judicial system that she has been charged with an honor code violation for speaking out about alleged abuse and sexual violence by an ex-boyfriend, who also is a student.
It’s a notoriously underreported issue on college campuses, but sexual assault is occurring at universities across the country. Between 14% and 30% of students experience sexual violence during college, according to the National Institute of Justice, and universities are under pressure to cut bureaucracies so they can sensitively handle reports.
Several schools have recently taken criticism for mismanaging sexual assault cases, said Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER) Board of Directors Chair Selena Shen, but it might not be a new trend.
“It’s happening every day, everywhere, and it’s just not being reported on,” she said of issues with university sexual assault management. “It’s not a trend, because it happens every day — even if it’s not in the exact same way.”
Most recently, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) learned it would be investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for its handling of alleged sexual assault cases. The community ignited when UNC’s Honor Court told sophomore Landen Gambill she could face expulsion after alerting the college she was sexually assaulted by her ex-boyfriend.
Meanwhile, Occidental College in Los Angeles is defending itself after learning about an alleged assault late last month, but did not notify students, faculty and staff until four days later, according to the Los Angeles Times. Barbara Avery, dean of students, wrote in an email that while the attack was “very serious, (it) was determined not to constitute a continuing threat.” Some students learned about it on the local news.
And at Oklahoma State University, a student faces four criminal counts of sexual battery, despite the university’s attempts to handle the situation on its own. Outside authorities did not learn about the case until a reporter for The Daily O’ Collegian student newspaper called city police, who had not heard of the alleged assaults.
What these universities and others should focus on in their sexual assault policies, Shen said, is protection for victims and transparency for the public. The recent New York University alumna said many universities report fewer than five sexual assaults annually, which she called “statistically impossible.”
“Colleges are … scared to make that reporting easier because it makes the number higher,” she said. “So it’s sort of a Catch-22, in a way. Someone might say a low number means the campus is safer, but actually low numbers indicate a non-transparent process.”
Though many universities have a staff member who handles sexual assault, Shen said communication issues can prevent policies from being consistently enforced. Greek life offices, for example, often separate their judicial systems from the rest of campus.
“We really want this to be super ingrained in the culture of school life,” she said. “But sometimes things can be super compartmentalized … so they don’t always transfer.”
In addition to professional staff, some colleges have student groups that educate students about sexual violence.
University of Miami psychology senior Jesscia Vasquez won a Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) awareness contest in 2012 by collecting hundreds of signatures that represented a pledge to learn about issues of sexual violence. Her and the rest of Women Against Violence and Sexual Assault (WAVES) at the University of Miami asked students to sign a giant umbrella to increase awareness about RAINN, and distributed candy with statistics and facts attached.
Vasquez said as more people become aware of sexual assault at universities, reporting them will become easier and campuses will be safer.
“It’s easier to say it doesn’t happen, but it’s really not. Because it just hurts the community,” she said. “When the community doesn’t know of the issue, it’s harder for them to protect themselves and their friends, and to take care of each other.”
But there’s still work to do, Vasquez said — she admits WAVES is one of the lesser-known clubs at her school. Still, she’s confident the work they do impacts students’ lives.
“There are so many people around the world who have experienced (sexual assault), and that number needs to go down,” Vasquez said. “It is a heavy topic, and it is hard. But when you’re reminded of how valuable your work is, then you know it’s worth it.”
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, you can call RAINN’s national sexual-assault hotlines for help: 1-800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org.
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