It sounds like good news. Nationally, 91 percent of colleges and universities reported that, in 2014, they had zero rapes. They must be doing something right, no?
The American Association of University Women didn’t think so. As soon as the annual data — which institutions must report under the federal Clery Act — came out, the association issued its own analysis, raising questions about such a near-pristine tally.
“Schools that report zero rapes have work to do and require additional scrutiny,” the association report argued, noting one study found one in five women is sexually assaulted during college, and other research found more than one in five experience physical or sexual abuse, or the threat of violence at the hands of an intimate partner.
“When campuses report zero incidents of rape,” the association concluded, “it simply does not square with research, campus climate surveys, and widespread experiences reported by students.”
The association argued that the “extraordinarily high number of zeros suggests students may not feel comfortable coming forward to report such crimes at some of these schools.” Which in turn means schools need to take a hard look at themselves and the ways they deal with the risk and reality of sexual violence.
What were the numbers for local schools, and do officials feel they are doing enough to combat rape and sexual offenses among students?
The local data
For starters, local colleges and university’s don’t seem to have fallen into the 91 percent that were rape free.
According to the federal online Campus Safety and Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool, in 2014 King’s College reported one rape, Wilkes University reported two and the University of Scranton reported four.
Marywood University and Misericordia University both reported zero rapes, but Misericordia University Campus Safety Director Bob Zavada conceded “that was kind of an odd year for us.
“I’m not saying we have many of these incidents, but we do average more than zero.”
Luzerne County Community College also reported zero rapes, but Security Director Bill Barrett has long pointed out the campus has no housing, sharply reducing the opportunities for sexual assaults.
The 2013 re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act required colleges and universities to report additional data, previously not provided, on domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.
The AAUW questioned the reporting of that data as well, noting that “only about 10 percent of college campuses disclosed a reported incident” in those new categories in 2014.
Locally, Wilkes University reported one incident of dating violence, Misericordia reported one incident each of dating violence and stalking, and the University of Scranton reported two incidents of stalking. King’s, Marywood and LCCC reported zero incidents in the new categories.
But Zavada, at Misericordia, offered an important caveat. The federal numbers are “very specific geographically,” and not inclusive to all incidents involving students.
Generally, the incident has to occur on campus-owned property or at a campus-sponsored event to get into the federal report, he said. “It doesn’t include an incident involving a student in an off-campus apartment.”
An incident may not get into the federal data if the victim opts to go to a confidential resource rather than to a college official or law officer, University of Scranton Provost for Student Formation and Campus Life Anita McShea said.
While the vast majority of college staff are obliged to report an incident brought to their attention, a few are not, including “a priest who is told in the performance of his pastoral duties, or a licensed counselor,” McShea said.
And while the new data on domestic violence and stalking should be valuable, Zavada pointed out that neither is necessarily a sexual offense.
What schools do
The AAUW notes increased emphasis has been placed on reporting and combating campus sex offenses in recent years. The law does more than mandate data collection and reporting, it requires schools to “develop policies, procedures and campus-wide training to ensure proper handling of sexual violence,” the report notes.
Administrators at area schools have insisted for years that they were ahead of the curve on this to begin with, implementing staff and student training before it was mandated, and that they constantly review their policies and programs.
“I think attention by the college campus has been much higher on this issue since my tenure,” McShea said.
McShea has been at the university for more than a decade and said the focus on combating sexual offenses sharpened about eight years ago when the school won a grant that helped set up what would become PACT, short for Promoting Awareness for College Transition.
“We facilitate conversations between upper class students and first-year students on things like relationships, stalking, sexual assault, consent, resources on campus and off campus, and answering questions like “How do I report? How do I get help?” McShea said.
PACT or something similar can typically be found on all area campuses. Misericordia Dean of Students Amy Lahart spoke of that institution’s program with some pride.
The effort against sex assault begins with one-day orientations in the summer before students start school. “It includes a full session where we cover all policies and procedures pertaining to students,” she said. “We do talk about sex assault, including supports available and reporting options.”
PACT kicks in during the first four weeks of a semester, “which is known as the red zone,” Lahart said. “Statistically, if a student is going to be affected by sexual assault or misconduct, that’s when it is.”
Students must take a 90-minute program that covers “three main functions: Consent, bystander intervention and supports on campus and off.”
Misericordia also has a Sexual Assault Response Team, or SART, professionals on campus a student can call anytime for help. The first question is “are you safe,” and advice and help goes from there, Lahart
Training, refresher seminars and even just one-on-one chats with staff continue through the year, Lahart said. There are also non-mandatory programs available for all students each spring on sexual assault, healthy relationships “and being able to communicate well.”
Lahart said communication is key, though how students communicate has shifted.
“I think students are more open to talk about things we didn’t talk about when we were kids,” she said. “What counter-balances that is their inability for effective communication with each other.
“Everything is texting, everything is electronic,” Lahart said. Students need to feel comfortable telling each other something is OK or not. Yet they tell her, “I can say it in a text, I can say it in an email, but I might not be able to say it to your face.”
Danielle Kissane and Thomas Scott alternate between animated smiles and thoughtful pauses as they sit in the stately Founders Room at Misericordia. They are members of the university’s PHREE peer educator program, short for Promoting Healthy Relationships through Education and Empowerment.
Why did Danielle, a 21-year-0ld occupational therapist major, get involved in a program that has her presenting programs on sexual assault and healthy relationships to fellow students?
It’s not because she was a victim herself, or that she knows victims. Some friends came forward and told her their stories after she became active, but the decision to join PHREE stemmed from what happens to students who are assaulted.
“I don’t like when a student’s rights are taken away, and they are made to be less than who they want to be,” she said.
Freshmen tend to come to campus “thinking they already know” what they need to regarding sex and relationships, Danielle said. In their programs, “we raise some topics that might not sit well with some students, things they push to the side.
“They come to the campus with the mindset that it would never happen to me,” she said. Either believing themselves incapable of attack or impervious to it.
PHREE also provides a student face in the lessons preached through the PACT program by staff, both said.
Having a PHREE student in the PACT mix, Danielle said, means “it doesn’t turn into one of those things where it’s, like … ” she pauses, but Scott jumps in.
“Yeah,” she continues, “it doesn’t turn into a lecture. It’s more like an open discussion. It’s not ‘you can’t do this,’ it’s more like ‘think about this’.”
And students often have quite a bit they haven’t really thought about.
“A lot of them don’t think men can be sexually assaulted, or that women can’t sexually assault someone,” Scott said. “It can happen to anyone, and anyone can do it.”
Students — particularly men — tend to think that once a relationship has become intimate, consent is automatic, Scott said. “They make a joke about it, asking if they have to stop and ask ‘Can I kiss you?’ We say ‘It’s important that you do that.’”
Then there are men who don’t get the not-so-subtle messages a woman can send at a party. “Say you’re out with friends and you start dancing toward a girl,” Scott offered, ” and she and her girlfriend switch positions (to block your approach). That means no.”
Both agreed talking about sex, assault, consent and relationships should begin in high school and even grade school with age-appropriate lessons. But once the students get to college, Scott said, “it’s time to take off the training wheels.”
It’s about relationships
In the end, those interviewed agreed, it’s not about the law, or about mandated reporting, or even about spelling out what’s right and wrong. It’s about knowing what a healthy relationship looks like and always working toward that.
“It’s not just about romantic relationships,” Scott said. “It’s about all the relationships you have in your life. And it’s important to remember how to maintain and have one.”
That means, among other things, mutual respect, honest communication, and neither person trying to control the other, he added.
McShea, at the University of Scranton, said the message seems to resonate most when she speaks in those terms.
“When I’m in front of parents and students talking from a very heartfelt place, I say no matter what the sexual activity, ask yourself: Are you of full mind, heart and soul prepared to engage in that behavior, and is the person you’re with the same?
“If you can answer yes to both, you’re completely fine.”
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydishcomments powered by Disqus