It’s the time of year called the Red Zone: the weeks between new student orientation and Thanksgiving break when college students are at the greatest risk of sexual assault. According to statistics, one in five women will be sexually assaulted while she’s at school — usually by someone she knows — and a disproportionate number of those attacks are happening right now.
Several factors contribute to this disturbing trend. First year students are meeting new people and trying new things. Many of them are newly independent, living without parental support for the first time. And, they’re in a new place, adjusting to an unfamiliar and often bigger environment.
A first year student at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington put a fine point on it: "Since we're in a new place, we're all really vulnerable and uncomfortable with our surroundings for a while. People can tell if someone's a freshman."
We should not accept this as the status quo; it doesn’t need to be inevitable. Our friends and sisters entering college shouldn’t have a target on their backs. And, I don’t need to tell you how damaging sexual assault is for survivors. You know that rape is traumatizing, probably through personal experience or because someone you love was assaulted. It breaks my heart that this has happened to people I care about, and that it will happen thousands of times between now and Thanksgiving. But, I want to tell you this is not a problem without a solution. This is not someone else’s problem. This is our problem, and we can solve it.
ILLUSTRATED BY SYDNEY HASS.
The epidemic of sexual assault at colleges has gotten more attention over the past year, but many schools still haven’t implemented adequate changes to improve the situation. For example, the first step to preventing sexual assault should be to improve education and awareness, but more than 30% of schools do not provide any sexual assault education to their students.
Incoming students need to be educated immediately about sexual assault. That education process should be mandatory for all, including clearly defining consent, bystander responsibility, and how to report an assault. Students should be given instruction on how to make their communities safer, such as telling bystanders how to help fellow students in need. Simple information on how and where to file a report is critical, and so is the process for reporting and assurance that action will be taken when a report is filed.
ILLUSTRATED BY SYDNEY HASS.
After education, the second step is support. Survivors of sexual assault need to know they are not alone. They need to know what to do, where to go, and who they can talk to. And, when students talk, appropriately trained faculty and staff need to be there to listen. More than 20% of schools do not provide sexual assault response training to their faculty and staff, which means sexual assault survivors have to navigate an unclear system that might humiliate and hurt them all over again.
Stories run rampant of complete failures by schools to have a proper investigation process: A student from the University of Southern California said, “The school did everything it could to dissuade me from talking about being raped and asking for help.”
“There are parts of me that wish I didn’t go through this process because I feel like I’ve gone through a lot of re-victimization and re-traumatization. I also feel like it’s something that needs to be talked about,’’ recounted a student at Occidental College.
Reports and testimonies from survivors across the country often describe a system that is cold, secretive, and unpredictable. This is outrageous and students deserve better.
ILLUSTRATED BY SYDNEY HASS.
The final step is enforcement. A University of California at Berkeley student who reported being raped on two occasions by a classmate said, "It was very clear people on the panel did not understand sexual assault...or the law.” The university found the assailant not guilty, and declined to grant the survivor an appeal. "I felt alone and helpless...It kind of made me feel like the university was okay with the fact that it happened to me and was just kind of putting on a charade."
Colleges and universities are legally required to investigate all reports of sexual assault — but more than 70% of schools have no set protocols for coordinating with law enforcement. Students should feel secure knowing that if they go through the often complex and humiliating process of reporting, something will be done to hold their assailant accountable.
How You Can Help
Rape is the most frequent violent crime on college campuses — that is appalling. But, there are efforts nationwide to solve this crisis.
U.S. Senators Claire McCaskill and Kirstin Gillibrand just introduced a bill — the Campus Accountability and Safety Act — that would require colleges and universities receiving federal funds to administer campus-wide, annual, confidential surveys to determine the true number of sexual assaults that happen on campuses. I also would like to see Congress consider requiring that colleges better educate their students, make students aware of reporting on their campus and properly support students who do come forward.
And, we should also demand accountability at the state level. Many schools are in a state system, so state governments can and should hold universities accountable. California, often a national leader for progressive causes, outlined several recommendations in a recent audit of sexual harassment and sexual violence on its university campuses — in my opinion, all of them should be passed into law — in hope that other states will follow its example.
Recently, the California Legislature passed a bill, authored by State Senate pro Tem Kevin de Leon and State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, to define consent and change the culture of rape on campus — frequently called the “Yes Means Yes” bill. This bill is waiting for Governor Brown’s signature, and if signed, it will be the first of its kind in the country.
We can stop this epidemic by working together and demanding accountability on every level. Let’s tell the U.S. Senate to pass the Campus Accountability and Safety Act immediately, and call on states to take action by auditing their schools and creating swift action plans to implement improvements based upon the findings. Let’s stand together and send a message: It is time for colleges to step up and protect the women we care about. It is time to stop sexual assault on campus.
Sandra Fluke is a lawyer and women’s rights activist to rose to the national stage in 2012 when she spoke before Congress about the need for insurance companies to cover birth control. She is running for State Senate in California’s 26th District.