Local colleges and universities are re-evaluating how they handle, report and try to prevent sexual assaults in the wake of new federal guidelines unveiled Tuesday.
The recommendations, made by a White House Task Force, call for annual student “climate surveys,” increased training of campus officials and students, and scrutiny of campus confidentiality policies, among other things.
Officials at Luzerne County’s institutions of higher learning say they are already doing many of the things recommended in the report.
Dubbed “Not Alone, the first report of the White House task force to protect White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault,” the document starts with stark statistics: One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, most in their freshman or sophomore year, overwhelmingly (up to 80 percent) by someone they know.
Yet the crime is severely under-reported: Only 2 percent of victims of “incapacitated sexual assault” (having been drugged, for example) and only 13 percent of forcible rape victims report the assaults to campus or local law enforcement.
“There are a lot of reasons someone may not report,” said Pat Rushton, outreach and education manager at Victims Resource Center, noting that in the general population about 30 percent of victims report a sexual assault.
When it comes to college students not reporting, Rushton cited a string of explanations.
“The victim may feel partly to blame. They may not know who to report to. Sometimes they are underage and are afraid they will get in trouble. A first-year student living on campus could be concerned that if she was raped and her parents find out they might make her come home,” Rushton said.
Fear of reprisal by the perpetrator was cited by 40 percent of victims surveyed as a reason for not reporting sexual assault, according to the report.
To counter that, the report offers numerous recommendations for colleges, including:
• Conduct annual “climate surveys” to gauge prevalence of sexual violence and student attitudes.
• Train campus officials on how to respond to victims.
• Update policies regarding victim confidentiality to help increase reporting by victims.
• Implement and sustain training for bystander intervention, with an emphasis on training male students. Rushton said that while there is almost never an opportunity to intervene directly in a rape, students can and are being taught to step in when a situation seems to be developing.
“Bystander intervention is about changing attitudes and then changing behavior,” Rushton said. “It’s about speaking up when you hear someone make a sexually harassing remark to a woman, when someone makes a berating comment about women, when you hear a rape joke.”
On the same day the report was issued, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights released a 53-page “policy guidance” on how colleges should meet requirements regarding sexual assault policies and reporting under the federal law known as Title IX.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a 36-page summary of a review of primary prevention strategies to prevent sexual assault. And the government launched a new website, notalone.gov, with a wide range of information and recommendations for students and schools.
The report promises more documents in the future for use by colleges in revamping policies, disciplinary procedures, training and related programs.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey sent out a media release saying he attended the unveiling of the report at the White House, and noting that he authored the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, which requires “colleges and universities to clearly spell out their policies regarding sexual assault and intimate partner violence,” the release said.
But officials at area colleges said they are already doing many of the things the report recommends.
Luzerne County Community College Security Director Bill Barrett said the school was hosting an “End the violence” training session by Rushton even as the report was being released. “We do this on an ongoing basis,” he said. “It’s nothing new to us. We go to great pains to do everything we can in this field.”
Barrett noted that LCCC has no campus housing, so sexual assaults have not been a problem. But he also said the school has detailed policy, training for staff and students, and counselors and program in place for victims.
LCCC Dean of Enrollment Management and Student Development Rosana Reyes said the school does a general climate survey every year that includes some questions about sexual assault, but not a survey dedicated to it. She said the school participates in various awareness programs, citing a mock rape trial held earlier this month in collaboration with King’s College. And she welcomed the additional federal guidance.
Wilkes University Deputy Title IX Coordinator Philip Rutkowsky said his school conducts a climate survey twice a year that includes questions about sexual violence, and that the school “has a constellation of programs in place. “
“Students get a student handbook quiz with specific questions about policies and terms of sexual violence,” Rutkowsky said. “They meet with Pat Rushton and talk about consent and how to protect yourself. There’s an online component with information about the correlation of sexual assaults and alcohol. I go into the first-year student’s foundation classes to talk about resources available, who to call, what our protocols are.”
Wilkes is also implementing a program with Rushton training students who will, in turn, train other students on bystander intervention. And while the volume of new information and recommendations from the federal government can look a bit daunting, Rutkowsky said he welcomes the chance to improve efforts on this issue.
Misericordia University spokesman Paul Krzywicki cited multiple programs and initiatives already in place there, including a “Sexual Assault Facts & Education (SAFE) Peer Educators group of students, a Sexual Assault Response Team available 24 hours a day, and regular training for students and staff, including programs with Rushton.
Like the others, Misericordia welcomed increase help and clarity in meeting federal requirements and providing a safe campus.
“The introduction of this task force by President Obama is a positive step towards clarification, identification of required procedures, and a better understanding of the laws that we are bound to uphold in an educational setting,” associate director of safety Robert Zavada said in a written statement. “All of us in campus safety, student affairs, residence life, and others have been hopefully waiting for additional direction in these matters and this will be of great assistance.’’