Editor’s note: Angela Rose is founder of PAVE: Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment, a non-profit that works to prevent sexual violence. She is the author of “Hope, Healing & Happiness: Going Inward to Transform Your Life.” She is on Twitter.
There is a danger that many college students and their parents don’t recognize: The overwhelming number of sexual assaults on campus.
Thanks to Title IX -- which guarantees equal access to education and prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment, rape, and sexual assault -- higher learning institutions have a duty to protect their students and cultivate a safe environment. Yet a study from the Department of Justice estimates that one in four college women will be victims of rape or attempted rape sometime during their four years of college, and that women between the ages of 16 and 24 will experience rape at a rate that's four times higher than the assault rate of all women.
Sadly, while these crimes are extremely prevalent, they are also extremely underreported, and many student victims suffer in silence. This lack of justice is due in part to “victim-blaming” language, lack of support, and the re-victimization of survivors.
There is an overwhelming amount of alcohol-facilitated sexual assault on American college campuses, and most of the time, the survivor knows the perpetrator. When sexual assault survivors attempt to report the crime -- or even simply talk about their trauma to friends and family -- they are often met with language that blames them for what happened.
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Because of this, many survivors blame themselves and often don’t realize that what happened to them was a crime. These feelings of shame and blame are further intensified when well-meaning parents and friends attempt to brush the assault under the rug or use language that somehow puts the responsibility on the survivor.
This lack of support is not simply from family and friends -- it is also institutionalized. I can speak from personal experience about how difficult it is to report a sexual assault to authorities and to be accused of lying about it.
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More than 20 years ago, Congress passed a disclosure law, now known as the Jeanne Clery Act, that forces schools to disclose all crime that happens on campus so that students and their parents could be informed. The hope was to pressure college presidents to work on crime prevention. Instead, there have been many news stories of egregious campus cover-ups.
The Center for Public Integrity conducted a year-long study and illustrated that "students found 'responsible' for alleged sexual assaults on campuses often face little or no punishment," and victims who do report these crimes run into "barriers."
Universities need to protect survivors; yet survivors are often re-victimized by being forced to see their perpetrator on campus day in and day out, which can have an adverse effect. When former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student Annie Clark reported her assault, a school official said, “Rape is like football: If you look back on the game, and you're the quarterback, Annie . . . is there anything you would have done differently?"
Wendy Wyler, a former student at Southern Connecticut State University, says she was sexually harassed and touched inappropriately by a music professor, yet he is still on staff. SCSU found that professor David Chevan had violated its sexual harassment policies, but let him continue teaching with a minor suspension.
An anonymous faculty member posted this message to the Change.org petition, which has garnered almost 2, 000 signatures:
“I know an alumna of SCSU who graduated more than 10 years ago and had similar problems with Chevan but was afraid to report. We need more women like Wendy Wyler, who refuse to be victimized and refuse to be placated by token punishments, which don’t address the problem.”
A minor suspension is not a sufficient response from the university, considering the professor’s pattern of harassment stems back a decade.
As a society, we need to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions and give support to survivors to encourage a faster healing process. Universities need to hold offenders accountable and stop the re-traumatization of survivors, as well as cultivate a healthy environment that does not tolerate sexual violence or sexual bullying.
These issues can be mitigated with a clear, comprehensive and easy-to-find sexual assault policy, a commitment to professional development on these issues, and prevention education. We need to educate parents that the number of reported sexual assaults at their daughters’ universities doesn’t necessarily indicate that a school is less safe than schools with fewer reports. In fact, those statistics can illustrate the exact opposite. Schools that encourage a safe reporting environment for students to seek justice can create the illusion of an “unsafe” school but can simply mean that schools are encouraging students to seek and receive justice.
It is crucial for campus officials to commit to creating safe environments where students can learn and thrive.
Editor's note: Wyler filed a law suit in 2012 that named both SCSU and Chevan as defendants. HLN has reached out to Chevan's attorney, William Dow III, and is awaiting his response. In 2012, Dow told the Associated Press that "anyone can make allegations in a lawsuit, and that they have to be proven in court. '[Chevan] continues to be a significant contributor to the music department at Southern,' Dow said, declining to comment further."