HARRISONBURG, Va. — Parents have always sent their kids off to college with lots of advice: Study hard, do your laundry, don’t spend all your money in the first week.
This year, with rising urgency, many are adding serious words of caution. To their daughters: Don’t walk alone at night. To their sons: No means no. To both: Beware of sexual hookups after heavy drinking.
Students starting college this fall probably have gotten more advice on preventing sex assaults than any incoming class ever. President Obama and public officials across the country have mobilized a campaign to combat the problem on the nation’s campuses.
All that conversation has left students wrestling openly with questions that years ago were rarely aired in public. How can you be sure there is mutual consent? How do you know when someone is too drunk to be able to agree to sex?
Here, at James Madison University, these questions have intensified since the university joined dozens of others nationwide under federal investigation for their response to reports of sexual assault.
Across the country, major efforts are underway to shape the attitudes of hundreds of thousands of students, many of them away from home for the first time, who are settling into dormitories and venturing into the college party scene.
“Once alcohol comes into play, the word ‘assault,’ the word ‘rape’ come into play — just like that,” said Shawn Tuman, 18, of New Jersey, a JMU freshman. “That’s just dangerous for everyone, guys and girls.”
Like many classmates, Tuman said he has learned that clarity about consent is crucial. “It really is defined as a verbal yes,” he said. “It needs to be discussed beforehand, thoroughly understood. JMU has done a good job of trying to define what consent is. But it’s a conversation that should never really stop.”
Anxieties have been heightened by incidents such as the disappearance of University of Virginia sophomore Hannah Graham on Sept. 13. “Every parent’s worst nightmare,” her father said. A Charlottesville man who was seen with Graham that night was charged this week with abducting Graham with plans to sexually assault her.
Obama, Vice President Biden and various celebrities, including actors Steve Carrell and Daniel Craig, have appeared in public service announcements this year to raise awareness of sexual assault. The White House this month launched a campaign that targets male students. The message: “It’s on us.”
Higher education leaders are joining in. Jonathan R. Alger, president of the 20,000-student public university here in the Shenandoah Valley, recorded a video this year with students, faculty and staff for a campaign called “No More” that seeks to end domestic violence and sexual assault. In it, Alger holds up a sign: “I say no more because we are all part of the JMU family.”
Nationwide, 79 schools face federal scrutiny for their handling of sexual violence reports. Aside from JMU, four others in this state are under investigation: U-Va., the College of William and Mary, the University of Richmond and Virginia Military Institute, subject of a case that began this month.
A former JMU student accused the university in June of giving an unduly light punishment to three male students who were found responsible for sexual misconduct in an incident that occurred during spring break in 2013.
The former student said she was groped without her consent — while she was drunk and topless — at a party in Florida in a scene captured on a cellphone video. The men reportedly were given a punishment of “expelled upon graduation,” meaning that they were allowed to finish their studies and obtain degrees. They were not charged with a crime. The university declined to comment directly on the case, citing federal privacy law.
But Alger acknowledged that the resulting publicity has cast a spotlight on sexual assault at a school well regarded for undergraduate education. “It has certainly raised awareness,” he said. “We have chosen to take this moment to talk about it. We want to look at what we can do better.”
For many, the conversation remains difficult.
“It is actually such a hush-hush topic,” said Zach Bolan, a senior who is president of JMU’s Interfraternity Council. “People don’t want to talk about it.”
Bolan, of the Sigma Nu fraternity, said he welcomes the emergence of discussions that are “completely and brutally honest and blunt.” Whenever there is a question about consent in a sexual encounter, he said, the answer must be that only “yes means yes.”
The cellphone video story seized the attention of incoming JMU freshmen. Interviews on the campus that straddles Interstate 81 found that many were aware of the incident.
Erin Banks, 17, of Suffolk, Va., said her parents told her: “Be careful of the people you hang around.” When an uncomfortable situation arises, they told her: “It’s okay to remove yourself.”
Some women said their parents gave them cans of Mace before dropping them off, to ward off attackers. Others said they were told to keep their drinks in hand at parties so potential predators would not spike them with so-called rape drugs.
“Honestly, you do feel vulnerable sometimes just being a young female,” said Amanda Thompson, 18, of Fairfax County. “You just don’t know who might want to take advantage of you.” But like other women interviewed, she said she felt safe at JMU.
One recent evening, Thompson attended a planning meeting for an event called the “Red Flag Campaign,” which promotes sexual violence prevention.
Laura Fullerton, Thompson’s mother, said she has urged her daughter to take a self-defense course. “I’ve talked to her a number of times about things she could do to be safer,” Fullerton said. “But she’s very level-headed, and that greatly reduces my anxiety.”
Advocates for survivors of sexual assault say it is misguided to put too much emphasis on self-defense and alcohol awareness. The focus, they say, must be on stopping assailants.
Many colleges nowadays give students online training in sexual assault prevention. JMU is one of 410 schools that use a program called Haven, launched in 2013 by a D.C.-based company called EverFi. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, is an investor in EverFi.)
The 45-minute interactive lesson dissects gender stereotypes and presents scenarios for analysis.
One depicts a man named Parker, who is on the prowl. “This party is gonna have a ton of hot chicks. I will definitely be taking one home!” Parker says. Then he spots a target: “I think I just found my girl. Looks like someone could use another drink.” The video suggests lines that bystanders might use to divert him, such as, “Hey Parker, not a good idea. I’m looking out for you. She’s drunk.”
The need for education is constant. JMU handles about four to five disciplinary cases a year involving sexual misconduct, said Josh Bacon, an associate dean of students. He said the university, aware that sexual offenses often go unreported, encourages victims to step forward.
JMU also trains students to lead small-group discussions on the importance of bystander intervention — a program called “Dukes Step Up” — referring to the university’s mascot. The university named for the nation’s fourth president promotes ethical reasoning among students through eight “key questions” printed on wallet-sized cards. Sample: “Character: What actions will help me become my ideal self?”
Sam Schaidhammer, 18, of Stafford, Va., said the messages have sunk in. “Students here are really good at watching out for each other,” he said. He said his parents had given him plenty of advice, too. “They wanted to make sure I wouldn’t get into trouble,” he said. “They said if you ever have a question, just get out of the situation.”
Sam’s father, Thomas Schaidhammer, said he has emphasized core values with his son. “We just say, ‘Hey, everything in its measure. Treat other people the way you want to be treated.’ ” The father added: “I tell him, ‘Drink in moderation. If you don’t, that’s when all the bad stuff happens.’ ”
Many of the strategies students pick up for staying out of trouble are timeless. They all know parties are “where things happen,” said Kian Pritchett, 18, of Lexington, Va. “The easiest way to get around that is having a type of buddy system of some sort. If you stick with friends, you’re there for each other.”
Pritchett said his mother had raised another concern, telling him he should make sure not to get snared in a situation that could lead to a false accusation of sexual assault.
Tracey Pritchett said that in making this point to her son, she in no way meant to cast doubt on trauma suffered by those who are raped. But she said there are inherent risks in what might seem to be a casual hookup.
“If you want a sexual relationship, you need to get to know the girl,” the mother said. “If she’s been drinking, that’s not the time to start. Know the girl, show her respect. Avoid misunderstandings. . . . Think about what you’re doing and about their motives. Do they really like you? Might they look back on it and think there was rape?”