Sexual violence against college students is not just an urgent issue; it’s something that school officials acknowledge also spans generations.
Kristina Erickson, a recent graduate of Beloit College, told The Washington Post she had been sexually assaulted twice in her time as a student at the Wisconsin school. Her mother, Maureen Powers, said she was raped when she was a student at Beloit in the 1980s. Erickson, writing about her family’s experience in 2013 for the student newspaper, lamented what she called an enduring “rape culture on our campus.”
Asked about Erickson’s assessment, Beloit President Scott Bierman replied in an e-mail:
“This brave young woman is right. There is a culture that breeds sexual violence and shames victims into silence — and it exists on and beyond our campus. For our part, we combat it by actively educating our students about their safety and their obligation to others, creating and communicating ways to report this activity, and doing our very best to make this campus as safe and effective as possible for all of our students.
“Kristina’s testimony proves we’ve not prevailed in our work to put an end to such experiences. Our commitment to her, her mother, and our future students is that we do succeed.”
Erickson is one of many current and recent students who spoke with The Post this spring about their experiences with sexual violence in college.
These women and men were found through a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation telephone poll that surveyed a random sample of more than 1,000 young people nationwide who had attended a four-year college within the past four years. Post reporters conducted dozens of follow-up interviews with those who said they had endured a completed, attempted or suspected sexual assault.
The vast majority of the incidents were not reported to college officials or law enforcement. Instead, students said they often kept their pain to themselves or confided only in family or close friends. For the most part, the accounts shared with The Post do not accuse colleges of wrongdoing.
The Post asked officials at about three dozen colleges and universities named in the student accounts to explain what the schools are doing about sexual violence. Their short answer: many things.
But officials also made a plea to all students who experience a sexual assault or any other unwanted sexual incident: Please tell us about it.
“You can’t do something about it if they don’t come forward,” said John Downey, dean of students at Queens University of Charlotte. He said students these days at the North Carolina school are “certainly more aware” of sexual violence than ever before.
“There’s definitely reporting, but in my opinion not enough,” Downey said. “I know that sounds weird coming from a dean of students. . . . But I want to know.”
At the University of Connecticut, officials created a new position: assistant dean of students for victim support services.
“A large part of her portfolio is supporting victims of crime, including sexual violence,” said Elizabeth Conklin, U-Conn.’s associate vice president for diversity and equity. “It allows our students to have one really critical point of contact for support on the university side that can help triage with them what the next steps are and listen to them about what their needs are.”
Conklin, whose office oversees investigations of sexual violence, said there has been a significant increase in the past two years in reports of incidents.
“That’s great,” she said. “It means people feel comfortable coming forward and feel like they will be supported and heard.”
At the University of Nebraska-Omaha, officials said they are expanding outreach and educational programs on topics such as sexual consent, bystander intervention and incident reporting. Web sites with information for survivors — which at some schools are hard to find and loaded with complex jargon — have been simplified and overhauled.
Officials also emphasized that faculty and staff are getting trained, too.
“We have no desire to kick the can down the road, and every desire to get this right for our students and our campus community,” said Daniel Shipp, vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management at Nebraska-Omaha.
Kalamazoo College, echoing others, said students hear about efforts to prevent sexual assault and reporting procedures as soon as they arrive on campus.
“We try to be really clear with students,” said Sarah Westfall, Kalamazoo’s vice president for student development and dean of students. “This kind of stuff happens here. We know it happens. We know that it’s under-reported.”
On a crucial issue — whether two people have agreed to sex — Westfall said the college delivers a clear message: “Consent means an enthusiastic, affirmative yes. Anything else is not consent. We try to make this gooey, murky state of social dynamics as clear as we can.”
She conceded that’s a challenge. “These are young people. They often are inexperienced sexual decision-makers,” she said. “Often alcohol or other drugs are involved, which can complicate it.”
Sexual assault is both a crime and, at colleges across America, a violation of student conduct rules. But Westfall said she is always mindful that many who experience unwanted sexual contact do not report it. She worries about them.
“These are the kind of wounds that people can carry with them forever,” she said. “The insidious after-effects are deeply problematic. That’s what I care about.”