Most days, my 13-year-old daughter walks to middle school in a passel of other girls, throwing their heads back to laugh about some lunch table joke, or silly photo someone shared on Snapchat. Most days, I marvel at how fast the girls I’ve known since kindergarten have grown.
These days, I count. Of the five girls in my daughter’s walking group, odds are that one of them will be sexually assaulted on a college campus in just a few short years.
And it’s not only at the University of Virginia, where Rolling Stone magazine just reported on a horrific gang rape during a 2012 frat party. Just this fall, at least one student tested positive for the date-rape drug GHB and reported sexual assault at a frat party at Brown University. Baltimore police are investigating the alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl at a Johns Hopkins frat house. Five young men were arrested at a New Jersey school for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman in a residence hall. Fully 86 colleges are being investigated by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for their handling – or mishandling – of sexual assault cases.
As a parent, these stories terrify me. So how do I protect my daughter? What do I tell my son? I sought out experts and best practices. Here’s what I found:
Don’t Trust Statistics
Schools that report more instances of sexual assault may not be more dangerous, just more honest, contends S. Daniel Carter, director of the VTV Family Outreach Foundation’s 32 Campus Safety Initiative, who has worked with the survivors of sexual assault as a victim advocate for two decades.
“Sexual assault happens in every college and every university community in the country. It’s a problem that is truly national,” he said. “Some schools have robust programs for survivors, and they may feel more comfortable reporting and assault. So those schools look like they have larger numbers.”
Low numbers may not indicate safety, he said, but rather a culture of silence. And most reporting is so uneven that statistics are unreliable.
Instead, parents need to look for three keys that make for a healthy campus culture: systems that treat victims fairly, systems that treat the accused fairly, and systems that engage the entire community in positive culture change.
“Get to know whether the college has a sexual violence prevention education program, find out how many individuals responsible for sexual assault have been expelled or suspended. Those are the questions for parents to ask,” he said. “Don’t just look at statistics.”
Students and parents should be getting better and more transparent data now that the Obama administration has called for an end to campus sexual assaults. In 2011, the Department of Education wrote to colleges that sexual harassment and sexual violence interferes with a students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination. And the administration’s “It’s On Us” campaign, with call for better reporting, prevention education, investigation and accountability, started this fall.
Campus cultures are beginning to change because so many more young women who’ve been assaulted are beginning to speak out, like Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia senior who’s vowed to carry a mattress around campus until her alleged rapist is expelled. And the media is finally paying attention.
Serial Rapists Can Hide in ‘Animal House’ Culture
Although bullying and even sexual harassment may start in middle or high school, the behaviors can flourish on college campuses, where students live and socialize together with little adult supervision for the first time in their lives, particularly in “hyper masculine” all-male subcultures, experts say.
EverFi, a consulting group that runs a popular online sexual assault prevention training program called Haven, surveyed more than 13,000 students last year. They found that more than 80 percent had healthy attitudes and behaviors around sexual assault when they arrived on campus, which remained stable in the first few weeks at school.
But a minority had riskier attitudes when they came to campus. And those attitudes and behaviors became “EXTREMELY” less healthy within a few weeks, EverFi noted in a recent report. This group tended to be primarily male. They tended to experience negative consequences of drinking, and were more likely to be athletes and members of Greek fraternities.
Without strong leadership from coaches, teachers or administrators, researchers have found that these all-male subcultures can come to think of sexual assault as no big deal, or a “normal” rite of passage. And though the best study on campus sexual assaults found that a very small percentage of men – perhaps 4 to 6 percent of those on campus – are perpetrating as many as 90 percent of the assaults, such cultures allow these “serial rapists” to operate with impunity.
“The research has shown that these serial campus rapists are just as predatory as their stranger rapist counterparts,” Carter said. “The difference is, instead of hiding in the shadows and hiding in the bushes, they hide in campus social circles and behind the structures of privilege that protect and insulate them.”
What to do? Teach both our sons and daughters about healthy relationships and how to recognize predatory behavior. And give them strategies to change the culture of their social circles – to ostracize serial rapists – and not stand idly by.
Bystanders Can Save the Day
Bringing in the Bystander program, an intensive, in-person training, and Know Your Power, a social media campaign, have been shown to help students recognize predatory behavior, to dispel rape myths that victims are to blame, and to give students tools to know how to intervene, said Sharyn Potter, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire and co-director of Prevention Innovations, a sexual assault prevention research center that developed both bystander education programs.
“With bystander education, we’re moving away from just telling girls to be careful and telling boys not to perpetrate and saying, ‘This is a community problem that involves all of us. We need to watch out for each other,’” Potter said. “It’s less intimidating. It’s a less threatening way to engage men. And we’re not asking people to run in with their Superman cape when they see a friend might be in danger. There are really subtle ways that people can change the course of events.”
Like turning on the lights or shutting off the music at a party when things get out of hand. Text 911 with their phones in their pockets. Create a scene. Make noise.
The bystander approach also teaches students how to respond if a friend comes to them and says they’ve been assaulted. Researchers have found many students have no idea what to say.
“We teach them that if they say something like, ‘I’m so sorry this happened, let me take you to the hospital,’ the victim is on a path to better healing,” Potter said. “Rather than the friend who says, ‘Well, what do you expect, you had 15 beers?’”
In the Rolling Stone article, after the woman identified only as Jackie told her friends she was gang raped, her friends discouraged her from going to the police or saying anything, lest they lose social standing and never be allowed into a frat party again.
Banning Frats Is Not the Answer
Schools have tried banning frats, but often the worrisome activity just moves off campus and underground, experts said. Plus, predatory behavior doesn’t happen only at frats, but in residence halls, recreation centers, house parties, cars and a host of other places on and off campus.
“Shutting down frats is complicated,” said Elizabeth Armstrong, sociologist at the University of Michigan and author of Paying for the Party, a study of Greek life and social inequality. “It’s complicated because the students can simply take the behavior into venues that are even less regulated. It’s complicated because some universities rely on fraternities and sororities for housing and programming. It’s complicated for development issues, because alums can get upset. It’s complicated for recruiting because some students want Greek life.
And if you get rid of these organizations,” she added, “you lose the opportunity to collaborate with students and get them on board with changing student behavior.”
For instance, Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish fraternity, has been working on a “Consent is So Frat” campaign to promote healthy, consensual relationships.
Alcohol Can be a Weapon. Take a page from Historically Black Colleges and Universities
Alcohol doesn’t cause sexual assault, but it can impair the judgment of victims and bystanders or incapacitate them, experts said. And for serial rapists, it can be a powerful weapon, plying would-be prey with cheap beer, or drinks mixed with “date rape” drugs like Rohypnol or GHB.
But banning alcohol on campus has been tried for years with no success. A Harvard public health study in the 1990s found that “dry” campuses that prohibited alcohol had a binge drinking rate only 5 percent less than that on “wet” campuses.
“Everyone’s still trying to figure out what to do,” about underage and binge drinking on campus, Potter said.
A 2011 study that found that Historically Black Colleges and Universities have lower rates of alcohol consumption compared to non-historically black institutions. And rates of sexual assault, primarily when the victim was incapacitated, appear to also be lower. The study pointed to culture: Black women at non-historically black institutions, like those at historically black institutions, drank less alcohol than their white counterparts.
The military, too, another organization where men and women live in close quarters, has been trying to control alcohol as a means of preventing sexual assault, using breath tests, intensive assault prevention education, peer mentoring and rules that prohibit military personnel from buying more than one drink at a time. As a result, between 2011 and 2013, sexual assault rates at the Great Lakes navy boot camp dropped by 60 percent.
Kids Really Do Listen to their Parents
The first weeks of school, during freshman year, is often the most dangerous time for young women, experts said, when serial rapists can target them before they know any better.
So the more students know about what they may confront, and how to handle it, the better, said Elizabeth Armstrong. Parents can help young men and women identify strategies to protect themselves and tools, like Bystander education, to recognize and stigmatize predatory behavior. “We found that the parents who were having extended conversations with their daughters about all these issues, that their daughters were safer in college,” she said. “With the boys, it was ‘You’ve got to understand, if she’s drunk, that’s illegal. If she’s incapacitated, it could ruin lives.”
Armstrong said she and her co-author were surprised to hear young women recite – and follow – familiar precautions heard from their parents:
-Always have a “battle buddy” when going out, and make sure both of you get home safely
-Some colleges will say, Don’t drink. But, given campus drinking culture, the more realistic advice is, drink responsibly.
-Both parties be clear about how far you’re willing to go, and that consent is mutual before getting into a sexual situation.
-Don’t leave your drink alone, and don’t drink something you didn’t open or pour yourself.
The students who fared worst, she said, were young women who had been incredibly protected or who didn’t have parents who went to college or who didn’t know how to navigate the campus world.
Which is why Armstrong said changing the campus culture to protect everyone is critical.
Although research suggests that one in five young women will be sexually assaulted at some point in their four years at college, the vast majority, perhaps 95 percent, are unreported and go unpunished. Victims fear they won’t be believed, and colleges and universities either want to protect their reputations and keep assaults quiet, or they simply don’t know what to do.
A 2011 survey of 500 college students found that nearly 60 percent said they don’t know where to go or how to help someone who is a victim of dating violence.
As Tommy Reid, president of the University of Virginia’s Inter-Fraternity Council, said at a recent Board of Visitors meeting, “Our university is in the wilderness right now. I don’t think any of us really know where to go next.”
Laura Dunn, a sexual assault survivor, victims’ rights lawyer and founder of SurvJustice, does. She serves on a working group to write model sexual violence prevention policies for the State University of New York System. Effective policies, like SUNY’s proposal, she said, include both prevention and swift, strong, consistent response:
- Take climate surveys to gauge what’s happening and campus attitudes. (only 16 percent of institutions currently do, according to a 2014 congressional survey of 440 colleges.)
- Ensure that victims/survivors of sexual violence know how to reach confidential, supportive resources on and off campus, including community organizations and state-wide hotlines. And make sure they’re aware of available remedies, including orders of protection, no contact orders, and adjudication through campus disciplinary proceedings and law enforcement. (More than 21 percent of the nation’s largest private institutions have conducted fewer investigations than the number of incidents reported to the Department of Education.)
- Include a “Victim/Survivor Bill of Rights,” ensuring that victims/survivors will be treated with respect and dignity when disclosing crimes of sexual violence.
- Put clearly in writing that the campus will not charge a bystander reporting in good faith or victim/survivor of sexual violence with violation of an alcohol or drug use policy if they were under the influence at the time of the incident.
- Create a fair process to those accused with consequences for those found guilty, including suspensions or expulsions. (A 2010 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found only 10 to 25 percent of students found responsible for sexual assault were expelled.)
- Provide a road map for an orientation and continuing awareness program to educate the campus community about preventing sexual violence, how to report it, and what resources and remedies are available for victims/survivors. Don’t just hand out a pamphlet at orientation.
- Define “consent” clearly and uniformly as unambiguous, knowing, and voluntary.“That’s actually a common question I get from guys when I do training, ‘How do I know if someone’s too drunk to consent?’” she said. “I always say, ‘if you’re not sure, just don’t do it.’”
She also supports policies that bar accusers found guilty and expelled from returning to school. Others, like Carter, advocate marking transcripts of those found guilty of sexual assault, so predators can’t move from campus to campus with impunity.
“Actually look at the schools’ policies on preventing sexual violence. It should be a normal part of deciding where to send a child to school,” Dunn advised parents. “No one wants to think this is going to happen, but if it does, you’ll want to know what kind of culture is on campus, which policies are appropriate and fair, and which are skewed or have so many loopholes that the university is not obligated to do anything.”
Change the Law. Many state sexual assault laws were written in the early 1960s and require victims to show signs that they fought their attacker, or resisted, for the action to be considered assault. “But if someone’s really drunk, violence isn’t needed as much,” S. Daniel Carter said. “Sometimes the victims aren’t even conscious, so they can’t testify as to what happened, much less have resisted it.”
The effort to revise the law is the first step away from blaming the victim, he said.
“We’re finally going to stop telling women not to walk alone at night, and shift to talking about what healthy relationships look like, what’s normal behavior and what should be ostracized,” Carter said. “That’s a good thing.”