Getting Real about Sexual Assault on Campus
By Interim Chancellor Peyton R. Helm
Sexual assault is too serious a matter to treat as political theater. The Obama administration and some student activists are castigating colleges for not preventing sexual assault and not following up appropriately when it occurs. Voices on the right claim that the (mostly) young men accused of sexual assault are being denied fundamental rights.
Both sides claim that colleges try to sweep sexual-assault cases under the rug to protect institutional reputations. As the new Interim Chancellor of UMass Dartmouth (and the former President of a small liberal arts college where I had to rule on sexual assault cases when they reached the final appeal stage in our judicial process) I know how traumatic these cases are for all parties concerned. I also know that sexual assault on campus is more complicated than the current public debate acknowledges.
Our society gives women lots of advice about preventing sexual assault: don’t walk alone at night; don’t leave your drink unattended; don’t dress provocatively; carry pepper spray or a whistle; take a self-defense class, etc. This advice might work in preventing young women from attacks from strangers lurking in the bushes. However, the vast majority of sexual assaults on college campuses occur between people who know each other; people who are spending time with each other; people who think they like each other. Walking alone and dressing provocatively have nothing to do it.
Sexual assaults on college campuses are typically the result of too much alcohol and too little communication. Both men and women must learn what it means to have consensual and respectful sex. At UMass Dartmouth, we have been working with our students to help them understand that for consent to occur, the following criteria must be met:
- Partners must clearly communicate their willingness and permission. Consent is not the absence of the word “no.” Failure to resist sexual advances, silence, and/or a prior relationship does not constitute consent.
- Partners must be fully conscious and aware of their actions. A person is unable to give consent if s/he is asleep, drugged, intoxicated, unconscious, a minor, mentally impaired or incapacitated.
- Partners must be equally free to act – or to disengage. The decision to be sexually intimate must be made without coercion and all partners have a right to stop at any time during sexual activity by communicating their wishes verbally or non-verbally.
What can institutions do to prevent sexual assault? Though we know there is no silver bullet, here are a few strategies UMass Dartmouth is deploying,:
All first-year students must complete an online course, Not Anymore, on sexual violence prevention;
New Student Orientation includes an interactive theatre session on diversity, consent and alcohol, on the links between alcohol and drug abuse and sexual assault, and covers the university’s sexual violence protocol and the student conduct process;
Programs on bystander intervention (Active Bystanders Care) and sexual violence prevention are sponsored by the Center for Women, Gender & Sexuality for any student organization or athletic team.
Campus safety officers offer rape-aggression defense (RAD) classes and Peer Health Educators offer programs on alcohol (The Absolute Truth & Red Watch Band) and sexual health.
Faculty and staff complete online training on Title IX and being mandated reporters, through Workplace Answers.
These programs consistently convey our institution’s fundamental conviction that every person has sovereignty over his or her own body, and that clear, knowing, and voluntary consent is an essential prerequisite for sexual activity between individuals.
We try to make sure students know they have a range of options:
- Confidential counseling and advice from our Victim Advocate/Educator in the CWGS, Counseling Center, Health Services, the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, and The Women’s Center, Inc. in New Bedford.
- Official reports and prompt follow-up by Student Affairs, Department of Public Safety, Title IX Coordinator, and Housing and Residential Education,
- Filing criminal charges with campus or local law enforcement.
Our Title IX investigators promptly investigate allegations of sexual misconduct, and we have campus police officers trained in working with victims of sexual assault. Our on-campus conduct process involves trained panels of faculty and staff, with timetables for decisions and opportunities for both accused and accuser to appeal. Institutional letters of "no contact" can prevent unwanted encounters between students involved in such cases, while our student conduct investigation guidelines permit the accused to suggest questions to pose to the accuser without directly confronting him/her/them.
Despite all these efforts, in 100 percent of the cases that have gone through our process, both parties are left feeling devastated. However, in no case, ever, at any institution where I have worked, has there been an effort to "sweep a case under the carpet." Sexual assaults happen on every campus, and cover-ups only make things worse. That does not mean we can speak publicly about cases, but confidentiality requirements are for the protection of our students, not the institution's reputation.
I cite UMass Dartmouth’s policies, procedures, and values not because they are extraordinary - in fact, they are representative of what many campuses do. Those of us who work in higher education chose this profession because we value and enjoy young people and want them to thrive. But even the most energetic and well-intentioned institution cannot guarantee a perfectly safe environment. There may be institutional outliers that don't care enough or don't try hard enough, but I suspect they are the exception. They should be held accountable, but they should not be considered typical of our country's higher education institutions.
More information can be found at www.umassd.edu/sexualviolence.
Revised from an op-ed by Chancellor Helm in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2014.