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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Take Back the Night
American University
April 2012

Statistics from local universities do not reflect larger picture of on-campus sexual assault

In the far southern corner of AU’s campus, behind the library and across a torn-up parking lot, tucked in an office in the Wellness Center, sits one of AU’s newest hires: Daniel Rappaport, sexual assault prevention coordinator.

His job: to provide educational prevention programming for the campus community and support survivors of sexual assault, survivors like Sarah.

Sarah, now a junior, was raped last year, held down, eyes covered by strangers while a student she knew but couldn’t see assaulted her. The police weren’t helpful and, while months later the student called and confessed out of the blue, she decided not to press charges.

“I decided that I didn’t want a court case lingering over my head for the next few months,” Sarah said, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her privacy. “I really just wanted to move on. So I told him that if he swore to never contact me again, I would forget anything had happened. I haven’t heard from him since.”

Like Sarah, 1 in 4 women have been victims of attempted or completed rape during college, according to a 2000 Department of Justice report.

So universities are taking the helm and working to stem the crime that so often goes unreported, police and administrators say, by adding people like Rappaport to their staffs.

“If 1 in 4 people on campus were being hit by a car, I don’t question for a second that there would be a crossing guard every five feet on campus,” Rappaport said.

Five of the largest local universities have a similar position: University of Maryland, George Mason University, Georgetown University, George Washington University and now AU.

And coordinators say having an office like Rappaport’s often means more sexual assault survivors come forward, help report the crime, and seek counseling and medical services.

The numbers

When looking at data from annual campus security reports, why universities would hire someone like Rappaport just doesn’t make sense.

Under the Clery Act, universities are obligated to report crimes that occur on university-owned property or public property near campus and compile them into an annual report.

Sexual assault, labeled a “forcible sex offense” under the Act, is one of the key statistics. The term includes rape, sodomy, sexual assault with an object and fondling that is forced, against the victim’s will or committed when the victim could not give consent, for example, if she were intoxicated.

At George Washington, there were 13 reported incidents of sexual assault in 2010. At Georgetown, 10. At Maryland, 10. At George Mason, five. At American, one.

But these are not representative of the true scope of sexual assault among college students, coordinators and university police say.

“There have to be more,” Capt. Marc Limansky of UMD Public Safety said. “When we’re reporting two or five [incidents], it just doesn’t make sense to me.”

The security report numbers don’t reflect the reality of sexual assault on campus as much as they reflect whether survivors know about and feel comfortable seeking services, Rappaport said. Many survivors don’t report sexual assault to campus or to local authorities, and rape is one of the most underreported crimes in the country.

“I don’t think that data is reflective of the reality of the crime as it might reflect the culture that doesn’t promote coming forward as well as other schools,” Rappaport said of AU’s one reported incident for 2010.

Assaults that occur off campus or over breaks also aren’t included in the Clery count, so, in actuality, many more sexual assault survivors are walking around different campuses. And many women come to campus having already experienced sexual assault. Forty-four percent of sexual assault victims are under age 18, according to the Department of Justice.

The pervasiveness of sexual assault became clear at Take Back the Night. Survivor after survivor, friend after friend rose from the dim pews of the school’s chapel to share their stories well into the night.

“A boy I liked raped me my freshman year of college.”

“A family member molested me when I was in elementary school.”

“My friend sounded off when she called me and I knew something was wrong.”

“My sister was molested and wanted to protect me.”

“He touched me, they raped me and I thought it meant I was pretty.”

“I was gang raped.”

“I was molested.”

“I was sexually assaulted at a party.”

“On a night walk.”

“By a friend.”

“By a boyfriend.”

“By a stranger.”

“By someone I trusted.”

More than 100 students listened and shared and hugged and cried. Some said, “It gets better.” “I am no longer afraid when I walk by him on campus.” “I am strong.” Some said, “I still have nightmares sometimes.” “I wish I could tell you it gets better.” “Not yet.”

Advocating for survivors

Part of sexual assault prevention coordinators’ jobs is to help survivors navigate the services universities provide. They help survivors access counseling and medical services and report the incident to campus or local police.

But it’s unlikely that cases get that far.

The coordinators say the majority of victims they see do not report an incident to campus or local police. Some fear the intrusion of a legal system and society that often places blame on the victim. Some fear retaliation. Some simply don’t want to ruin the perpetrator’s life.

“Everyone is raised in a society for the most part that, when we hear about somebody being raped, we say, ‘What was she doing walking around that late? Why was she drinking that much? Why did she wear this?’ That’s just kind of the default line of questioning,” Georgetown’s coordinator Jen Luettel Schweer said, “which is why, when survivors are assaulted, the first thing they do is blame themselves, feel shame, feel guilt because they’ve internalized that even before they were survivors, because that’s the natural line of questioning.”

Kate Dillon Hester, one of the District’s sexual assault nurse examiners, conducts forensic exams for sexual assault patients that visit MedStar Washington Hospital Center, the only location in the District that provides such exams, which are necessary if a case goes to court.

Of the 50 or 60 patients she has seen over her 2-year career, Dillon Hester said about 15 of them have been college-aged.

“Not as many as you would expect to see,” she said. “It’s grossly underreported. People don’t know where to go.”

One of the hardest parts of her job, she said, is knowing the difficult process ahead for those who choose to file a police report. Many drop out of the process because they feel guilty or there isn’t enough evidence, she said.

“You don’t know how much you’re helping,” she said.

Sarah’s story

About a year ago, Sarah was walking home from a party near the National Cathedral. It was 10 p.m. and she was sober, so she thought it would be safe to walk alone.

Three men followed her out of the party — someone she had hooked up with her freshman year and two of his friends. They came up behind her. One held her down, another covered her eyes and mouth. The third one, the one from freshman year, though she didn’t know it at the time, raped her.

“It happened really fast, and I couldn’t really think straight or believe what was happening. After that, they dropped me to the ground and ran away,” Sarah said.

A friend took her to Sibley Hospital. She talked to a police officer about the incident but never heard back.

“I felt like the entire process was a waste of time and energy,” she said.

She thought about telling campus police, but decided it wasn’t worth it.

“I didn’t want to explain my situation to a roomful of people who I didn’t know and didn’t trust,” she said.

A few months later, her rapist called and confessed out of the blue. He had developed an obsession with her and she had had no idea. She decided not to press charges if he agreed to leave her alone forever.

AU does its best to educate students on sexual assault, she said. Women’s Initiative, sexual assault stickers in bathroom stalls and the new bystander intervention program Green Dot help provide services to those seeking help, she said, acknowledging that it’s difficult to educate students on the issue.

“The majority of students don’t understand how they can help and make a difference,” she said. “I know that I was never too involved in the cause before it happened to me. It’s sad that most of the people I know who are involved in sexual assault prevention and help on campus are only involved because they are survivors themselves.”

It has been a year now since she was attacked, and Sarah said each time she talks about that night, it gets a bit easier; each time it has a little less control over her.

This year, she went to Take Back the Night.

“It was a bit much, but extremely empowering,” she said. “The parade, although loud, made me feel like I was part of a supportive environment. The testimonials were equally as important. I wasn’t ready to speak at that point, but hearing other people who I knew and who I didn’t know talk about their experiences made me feel like I was not alone.”

Educating a campus community

Another key component of the coordinators’ jobs is education, changing the culture that often blames victims and promotes rape on campus, through workshops, peer groups and trainings. The coordinators also run workshops at orientation, train faculty and staff and lead men’s groups like Men of Strength, part of the national organization Men Can Stop Rape.

Requiring all students to have some sort of education on the topic has been contentious, however.

At AU last spring, about 20 students stormed the Office of Campus Life when Vice President of Campus Life Gail Hanson did not sign a Violence Against Women Act grant proposal because of concerns with its mandatory education requirements.

This summer, Rappaport will give a presentation to new students at orientation, but the coordinators said changing a culture is far from easy. Students graduate or transfer every year, making room for a new crop of students that needs to be educated. And teens and young people often think it’s weird to get consent before engaging in sexual activity, coordinators say. George Mason’s coordinator Rachel Lindsey has seen an increase in victim-blaming on campus.

At AU, sexual assault has even permeated Eagle Rants, where Ranters have debated what is and isn’t rape and what does and doesn’t constitute consent. Some openly say women should stop getting drunk and putting themselves in dangerous situations if they don’t want to be raped. Some argue the 1 in 4 statistics can’t possibly be true, that it’s a slap in the face to “real” rape victims, that Women’s Initiative’s anti-rape advocacy portrays AU women as disempowered.

On the afternoon of Take Back the Night, the vice president of the Intra-Fraternity Council posted a Facebook status saying:

“Take Back the Night is occurring this evening, in which many inexplicably angry women will be marching around campus making way way more noise than is either necessary or desireable [sic], while simutaneously [sic] being the only organization allowed to do so. So, do us all a favor, and when they start up that god awful racket please register a noise complaint; they’ll have to stop.”

Angry students shared the post on social media, and, within hours, the vice president resigned.

Moving toward a less hostile environment

Back in his office in the Wellness Center, Rappaport said he is both hopeful and pessimistic that the campus and national culture can change.

At some point, there will be four years of student athletes who will have seen his sexual assault presentation. And, during summer orientation, the first crop of new students will attend a session on sexual assault. He is carefully putting together the many pieces of the puzzle: Workshops. Peer education. Men of Strength. Women’s groups on campus. Bystander intervention. Victim advocacy.

The newness of the position is a challenge, he said, as he tries to establish new norms. But there has already been one clear benefit to having Rappaport around: more survivors have reported incidents under the Student Conduct Code.

“And I like to think that this is not just me, per say, but, I think, the efforts of the University,” he said. “I think, between my position and the other efforts the campus has made, it’s clearly moving toward a more open and less hostile environment.”

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