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Combating Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When navigating the exciting choosing-a-college process, few parents or students likely take into consideration the number of sexual assaults reported by that university; bottom line, we trust our institutions to keep us and our loved ones as safe as possible. But recent events at USC, Yale, Notre Dame and other institutions raise the question: are schools looking out for their own best interests or their students when it comes to reporting sexual assaults and other related incidents?

We spoke with Security on Campus Executive Director Alison Kiss. She gave us the low-down on the rules for institutions reporting sexual assault and also how students can raise awareness about the issue on their campus. 

Interview by Ana Valentine

The Clery Act was put in place so that schools participating in federal financial aid programs would be required to report crime statistics and incidents. What keeps these reports from being accurate?

The statistics that are represented are reported statistics. Sex offenses typically are not reported at higher rates. Really, if an institution reports "zero" sexual assaults, it is showing that none were reported, but it does not mean that none happened. I frequently advise students and parents to look beyond the numbers and really identify what services schools have for victims of crime.

What are the rules for schools when it comes to reporting sexual assault incidents?

Institutions have to follow reporting based on the UCR (FBI- Uniform Crime Report).  If a sex offense (incuding rape and sexual assault) is reported to a Campus Security Authority, campus police or other designated person than an institution needs to provide that information in their Clery report.  Most non-compliance comes from failure to adhere to the Campus Sexual Assault Victims Bill of Rights more than simply reporting numbers. Campuses need to provide certain rights to both the accuser and accused.

How does a school's failure to properly address sexual assault cases put both the victim and fellow students at risk?

A school's failure to address can cause a hostile environment for the victim and may put other students at risk. There has been research stating acquaintance rape is serial, meaning that if a perpetrator goes undetected, he/she will more likely offend again. 

How do you think we could better educate male students on the issue of sexual assault?

Most men do not rape and are not violent.  Bystander intervention is a way that proves effective and engages men to stand up and speak out about sexual violence.  Really empowering men to say, "this is not okay."  Recently, Vice President Biden stood in front of a crowd at the University of New Hampshire and addressed that if a woman says no, at any point, that it is time to stop. It was powerful to see a very successful, confident man speak out about this issue.

What should female students know about their rights when reporting rape or sexual assault?

Females (and males, who can be victims as well), should know that it is never their fault. There are specific rights afforded to victims under the Campus Sexual Assault Victims Bill of Rights and their institution is charged with providing students with info on their rights and options.

How do you think Joe Biden's new guidelines will help schools and colleges understand their obligation to respond to sexual assault?

The guidelines put forward by OCR and in VP Biden's address provide further clarity and direction for colleges and universities. I think this sends a powerful message that there is an intention to enforce the guidelines and to provide information to victims.

Do you think we will see a change in the reports because of this?

It depends.  If a campus has a silent culture around this issue, students will never be comfortable to report. If campuses institutionalize the problem of sexual assault and provide resources for students, students will feel welcome to open up about these issues.

What is the biggest flaw in school systems concerning reports?

This is tough to answer briefly, but one of the biggest obstacles is providing education for people involved in the process. Student conduct officers and campus security authorities should be trained on victim-centered response and providing students with options and education on these issues. 

Students at Yale have been among the first to stand up to their school board. In what other ways can students get involved in this issue on their campus?

Prevention and bystander intervention. It is very powerful for students to stand up and say that they do not tolerate sexual assault on campus.

We commonly hear of schools that have made errors in handling sexual assault cases. What schools are thought and action leaders in the correct way to handle these cases?

There are schools that employ some best practices when it comes to education and policies.  Really, it is difficult to name a specific school. I would say the leaders are institutions that are truly institutionalizing the issue.  They are educating and involving students, staff and faculty in the issues.

What are SOC's next goals, agenda or plans to combat sexual assault on campus?

Our plans are to continue to raise awareness and partner with other organizations to enhance the rights of student victims on campus.  Currently, we are partnering with PAVE (Promoting Awareness and Victim Enpowerment) to run a Safe Campuses Strong Voices Campaign in September for National Campus Safety Awareness Month.  We also direct a national peer education program where we partner with colleges throughout the country to train their college students to educate high school students about sexual assault.  We are also working on legislation with Senator Casey's office (D-PA) for the Campus SaVE (Sexual Violence Elimination Act).  The goal is to amend the Clery Act to mandate educational programs for sexual assault and domestic/dating violence.

Some answers have been shortened for clarity. This interview is part of an interview series for Sexual Assault Awarness Month. Check back on Tuesday, April 26 for an interview with an advocate from Rape Victim Advocates.



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