Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Take Back Your Campus

Written by Nora Niedzielski-Eichner

Kristen Gabriel was raped three weeks into her freshman year at Adelphi University. She had no idea what to do, and it wasn’t until she found a pamphlet sitting on a bench in Adelphi’s Student Union several months later that she even knew she could report her assault to her school. Gabriel decided to go through the process of reporting her attacker, a fellow student, to her school’s disciplinary committee, a process that traumatized her all over again. She was asked accusatory questions about what she had been wearing and whether she had been drinking. There were no female police officers for the investigation, and no women on the hearing board. She was never offered counseling. Gabriel says of her experience, “I felt like they were using me as a tool to get this person out of school.” He had been accused of other misconduct, including dealing drugs and throwing glass bottles at professors. She did not feel that their primary concern was helping her.

Kristen Gabriel was raped three weeks into her freshman year at Adelphi University. She had no idea what to do, and it wasn’t until she found a pamphlet sitting on a bench in Adelphi’s Student Union several months later that she even knew she could report her assault to her school. Gabriel decided to go through the process of reporting her attacker, a fellow student, to her school’s disciplinary committee, a process that traumatized her all over again. She was asked accusatory questions about what she had been wearing and whether she had been drinking. There were no female police officers for the investigation, and no women on the hearing board. She was never offered counseling. Gabriel says of her experience, “I felt like they were using me as a tool to get this person out of school.” He had been accused of other misconduct, including dealing drugs and throwing glass bottles at professors. She did not feel that their primary concern was helping her.

What would you do if you were sexually assaulted on your campus? How would your campus police and your dean of students treat you? What kind of support would they offer you? What do they do to keep you from being sexually assaulted in the first place?

These are the kinds of questions that most students don’t think to ask until something happens to them or a close friend. And for far, far too many survivors, the answers are “I don’t know,” “Badly,” “Little or none,” and “Pretty much nothing.”

Rape and sexual assault remain one of the largest threats to women’s (and men’s) health and well-being on college campuses. Almost all college sexual assaults involve someone known to the survivor, adding additional psychological trauma from betrayed trust to the physical and mental harm caused by the assault. Surveys have repeatedly shown that somewhere between one in four and one in five college women will experience a sexual assault during their college years (sexual assault is broadly defined as any unwanted sexual activity—it includes everything from taking pictures of someone naked without their consent, to groping, to attempted rape, to rape). Around 3 percent of college women are raped each year. The numbers for men are lower and harder to come by, but studies have suggested that one in thirty-three men will survive a rape or attempted rape at some point in their lives.

And yet, too many colleges and universities refuse survivors the services that would decrease their trauma, lack programs that have been proven to increase student safety, and have policies that unintentionally enable rapists. This might all seem terribly depressing and insurmountable, and make you feel like you want to go lock yourself in your dorm room and never come out (or keep your sister/cousin/younger friend from ever setting foot on a college campus). But the more realistic, not to mention more fun, solution might be to join (or support) the growing number of student activists who are slowly but surely bringing change to their campuses.

When Gabriel came back to campus the following fall, she knew she wanted to do something to keep other students at Adelphi from going through what she had gone through. Her sophomore year, she helped organize the first Take Back the Night event her campus had ever had. She started speaking to classes, to campus groups, to fraternities, to the Key Club, and the gospel choir, to anyone on campus who would listen. The next year, she marched into the university president’s office, and left him a letter and a flyer, inviting him to speak at the event. He came. So did the district attorney for Nassau County, whom Gabriel had also invited. She finally knew people were paying attention when she was invited by the board for public safety to review her case with them, step by step, and help them figure out what the university could do to make the campus safer for students.

She counts among her successes the presence of more female police officers on campus and a steadily improving reputation among students for the police force as a whole. Gabriel reiterates this point, “I’ve actually seen them stop and ask people if they need a ride, especially late at night.” Even though she has graduated, other students have stepped in to keep pushing for more change, and Gabriel says, “My whole goal was to leave a little piece behind at the school for all the crap I went through. At least I feel like I have some kind of restitution.”

Campus Sexual Assault Policies
Having survived a sexual assault is not the only, or even the most common, reason that students first get involved in trying to change how their school approaches sexual assault. For some, like Dan Wald of Ithaca College and Margaret Schuster of St. Mary’s College Maryland, it was the experiences of close friends or a rape that became public knowledge on campus. For Jaime Zottola of SUNY New Paltz, it was a friend’s class assignment. For Josh Gohlike at Case Western Reserve University, it was his work at the campus women’s center. For Erin Burrows at Sarah Lawrence College, it was the loss of funding for the school’s sexual assault awareness program. What each found as they got involved at their school was how much of a difference a policy makes.

Sexual assault policies vary enormously, from a single page—which was the length of Case Western’s policy when Gohlike’s group began their work—to the twenty-one pages in the current policy at New York University. They can cover everything from the definition of sexual assault, to the procedures of the school’s disciplinary process in cases of sexual assault, to the services available to survivors. They control who a student can speak confidentially with, who will determine whether the school’s rules have been broken and how that determination should be made, how easy it is for a student who has been assaulted to find the services they need, and what rights both survivor and attacker have in the disciplinary process.

What students find inadequate about their schools’ policies and services varies enormously too. Often students say the first problem is making sure that all students know how to get help if something happens; too many students feel like Gabriel did, with no idea of where to turn. Wald’s group at Ithaca got the administration to pay for magnets for the stall doors in all the campus bathrooms, listing contact information for Ithaca’s services for sexual assault survivors. Case Western’s new policy includes a flowchart that helps survivors easily see all the resources available at the school and what will happen if they choose to use each option. The group Schuster worked with at St. Mary’s College succeeded in getting their school to offer peer advocates who can guide survivors through the maze of campus resources. Schuster explains, “Being sent from office to office is annoying enough when you just want some forms completed, but for a recent survivor of sexual assault, this could be harrowing. We wanted to have people who knew the routes to take and could lead the survivor down the path the survivor wanted the most…”

Student activists also express a lot of concern with how each of their schools define sexual assault, rape, and consent. The student groups at both Sarah Lawrence and SUNY New Paltz rewrote their policies so that the definition of rape used in the policy included same-sex sexual assault. At St. Mary’s, they wanted the policy to clearly state that both parties had to actively demonstrate their consent for the sex to be consensual, that silence could never be taken to mean consent.

Having each policy reflect the severity of the crime it addresses has also been a concern for students, especially at campuses where the euphemistic term “sexual misconduct” is used. At a forum on their sexual assault policy last spring, students at Connecticut College expressed concerns about the vagueness of a term that lumps together offensive remarks and rape. Zottola sees one of the successes of the campaign at SUNY New Paltz being the renaming of their policy from the Sexual Misconduct Policy to the Policy Regarding Rape and Sexual Assault. Zottola adds, “Students didn’t know what [sexual misconduct] meant; we wanted to change it to rape. We wanted to show how serious it is.”

Disciplinary procedures are another huge area of concern. Many students report that the procedures at their schools are unclear or are not followed by the disciplinary board. A senior thesis written by Megan Gamble at Knox College found through interviews with students and faculty that the written procedures for sexual assault hearings were often unclear and that the board members were insufficiently trained. Hardly anyone she interviewed felt like the process was effective or fair, even though everyone on the board had the best of intentions. A student who prefers to remain anonymous was asked offensive questions by her attacker at her hearing, and the board in her case allowed him to continue doing so. Erin Clark, a student currently working to change Wesleyan University’s sexual assault policies, says that one of her first concerns is that the student university administrators choose for the judicial board “[doesn’t] represent the demographic of the school at all…the student who represents the student body is always a white male who has worked with the administration and in student government for four years, which is a very specific kind of student.”

Finally, students have been fighting hard for both prevention programs and survivor services. The student group at Sarah Lawrence has been fighting for several years now for the restoration of a sexual assault awareness program that was shut down when a federal grant expired. They also want an expansion of the counseling program on campus—students only get a limited number of sessions, “that was really, really unfair for people who needed them and couldn’t…get to a private therapist in town.” Students at St. Mary’s fought for and won a full-time health educator with experience in sexual assault issues, to handle survivor services and prevention education.

Of course, what works wonderfully on one campus may not work at all on another. A recent alumna of the University of Maryland was working before her graduation to keep her campus from cutting back their peer advocate program—the client load at the Office of the Victim Advocate jumped almost 300 percent when they started using undergraduate students as peer counselors. On the other hand, a recent alumna of Dartmouth is starting a survivors’ organization called DartHeart off-campus, because the small size and fishbowl nature of the Dartmouth community means that few survivors there are willing to use their on-campus peer counselor service. Student involvement in writing the new policy was seen as crucial for its effectiveness by every student interviewed for this article—every campus has its own unique culture, and only students really know what students need on their particular campus.

Making Changes
None of these students’ victories have come quickly. When asked what advice she would give students at other schools who want to change policy, Schuster said, “…be ready for not all your demands to be met and needing to pass on issues to younger students who can carry it on when you’ve graduated.” Gohlike echoed her sentiment, “Try and make [the process] sustainable—it isn’t always going to happen quickly. The people who started our process graduated two years before the policy change.”

The big obstacle, of course, is the college’s administration. Charges of deliberate negligence and outright wrongdoing in cases involving sexual assault on campus have been made against administrators at Eastern Michigan University, the University of Iowa, the University of Washington, the University of Colorado, and the University of Georgia, among others, by lawsuits, federal agencies, or independent review boards in the last several years. None of the students interviewed for this article had accusations like these—although that may be because the students who were interviewed were primarily those who have been successful in getting their administrators to take them seriously.

Zottola at SUNY New Paltz seems to have had the easiest time. She reports a great relationship with the Vice President for Student Affairs, who was “really supportive of students, really great about being concerned about sexual assault.” Their changes only took about a year to be put in place. On the other end of the spectrum, the students at Sarah Lawrence are in their fourth year of trying to make a change in their policies and services. Burrows reports an administration that initially ignored their concerns, then tried to deny that their concerns were true, and is now only working with them on the policy and not on their demands for a staff person with a background in sexual assault services. They needed to do something. “I think [a policy reform taskforce] was a cost-effective way of dealing with us—it was pretty clear our policy was outdated.”

Hostile or merely mired in bureaucracy, students definitely reported commonalities in how they dealt most effectively with their administrations. Most of the students interviewed started their process with attempts to find out what students felt was lacking on campus. Wald organized a safe-space meeting where students could tell their stories and vent the strong feelings that erupted when a rape was reported on Ithaca’s campus. Schuster’s group began with a huge town hall meeting to address concerns about how the St. Mary’s administration was handling a recent sexual assault and recent racial incidents. The current Wesleyan campaign grows out of a survey that Clark and other students created to find out what students thought about how sexual assault was being addressed on their campus. Being able to prove that lots of students were concerned scares the administration, as Wald points out. “They knew that if the students gathered together they could do whatever they want. An educational place is made by the students and if they want it, collectively they’ll get it done.”

Reaching lots of students can be difficult, particularly on a campus where there has not been a recent, highly publicized incident. Burrows reports, “We held student meeting after student meeting and no one would show up. I think it’s a matter of the interpersonal, not just putting up flyers. It took me four years to really understand why a policy change was necessary, and I think we needed to do a better job of talking to other students about that.” Gabriel offered similar advice, “Whoever you can talk to, talk to….Every student is a change unit, those are the people you should be talking to most.”

Both Gabriel and Wald attribute their success to their willingness to talk to anyone and everyone. (Wald says that nine-hour chemistry labs give him plenty of time to talk to people.) When Gabriel started visiting any campus group that would let her come talk to them, she was shocked to discover how many people had experienced violence. “The head of the gospel choir even told her story at the [Take Back the Night] vigil that year,” she says. The bottom line seems to be that change has to start with student conversations, and the more of them, with as many different people as possible, the better.

Once they had a good sense of what their campuses were lacking, activists found the policies at other schools to be the best resource for solutions. Several mentioned “Antioch’s famous sexual assault policy,” but they often looked at policies from a number of schools, taking what they liked best from each. This kind of research has just gotten easier with the launch of Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER)’s new College Sexual Assault Policies Database. (Full disclosure: I am on SAFER’s board and worked a little bit on the database. The database generates no revenue and is intended solely to help student activists.)

The database contains the policies of about eighty schools, provides information about the schools’ programs in a number of categories having to do with sexual assault, analyzes the policies for quality and legal compliance, and offers students a space to comment on what actually happens at their schools in practice. Since most student activists draft their new policy proposals by cutting and pasting from other schools’ policies, SAFER realized that such a database would help students create much better new policies with many fewer months spent on research.

With a new policy in hand, the question becomes how to convince the administration to make the changes. Gohlike sums it up, “It was really all about the persistent pestering.” Students scheduled meetings with administrators and attended meetings they were invited to. They sat on task forces and went to more meetings. The administration was “impressed by our draft and our presentation and our willpower to stick this out,” as Schuster describes her group’s ultimate success with their sexual assault task force. The key point, as the Sarah Lawrence group has found, is to hold on to the essentials while negotiating over the details. Burrows said they had to learn about “buttering up the people we [they] had to convince, not just get[ting] in their faces.” She adds, “For a group of fiery radical activists, it was really hard to realize that we had to make compromises, that a lot of patience is required for making policy changes.”

Fiery radicals or calculating negotiators—or both—these students demonstrate that it is possible to change how administrations respond to sexual assault on campus. It mostly takes persistence and a strong campus network. Gabriel’s parting advice? “Make more allies.”

Note: If this article triggered memories or emotions that you need to discuss with someone, you can call RAINN’s hotline 24/7 at 1-800-656-HOPE or chat with a counselor online at www.rainn.org. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) has operated this hotline since 1994 ,and they offer highly trained support staff that can help you right away for free.

And please remember, sexual assault and rape are NEVER the survivor’s fault.

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