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How do I approach my college about sexual assault awareness?

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Annie W. asks:

Beginning in September, I am going to be employed as Residence Don for an all girls floor at a university. I am pretty excited about the job and really would like to make residence life a positive experience for the students I will be living with (about 170 guys and gals in total).

However, there is one MAJOR issue I have with the residence, they offered no sexual assault awareness education for the students. In the 2008-09 school year, there were 3 sexual assaults reported, which lead to criminal charges, and almost all I have talked to who have lived in this residence for multiple years have either been sexually assaulted themselves or had a friend who was while living there.

So, clearly, something is needed to change this residence culture that seems to be conducive to sexual violence.

Heather Corinna replies:

Annie's question continued: What I would like to do is approach administration about implementing a sexual assault awareness session for all students at the beginning of the year and I am anticipating resistance. So, my question is, what is the best way to go about doing this? I would also like to have some resources to send to them, however, I am having difficulty finding clear, educational resources. I did find one powerpoint presentation about the role bystanders play in sexual assault, but it says nothing of the assaulter.

I would also like to add that this issue is close to my heart, not only because good friends of mine were sexually assaulted (in that building, no less), but I was sexually assaulted first year university and it had a devastating effect on my life at the time and I ended up dropping out of school because of it. I think it is completely unacceptable that the residence is so complacent on this issue. I would really appreciate hearing any suggestions you have, thanks!

P.S. The Women's Centre on campus is pretty useless.

What a great question, one that deserves a great answer, ideally from someone who has done some work with colleges addressing this issue. So, I enlisted my fantastic friend and fellow revolution-seeker Jaclyn Friedman, writer, performer, and activist, and co-editor of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape who was delighted to fill you in as best she could.

Here's what Jaclyn had to say:

First of all, congrats on being a Residence Don! Sounds like the frosh in your care really lucked out - thoughtfulness and proactiveness are two of the most important qualities in a residence advisor, and you seem to have plenty of both.

I’m sorry you and your friends and your community have been so violated. Sexual assault is never inevitable, except when a community treats it as such. So kudos for you for not only surviving, but working to stop sexual violence from being a “fact of life” on your campus. It doesn’t have to be.

Which brings us to your question. I know you say you expect resistance from the administration, and that’s not surprising. Very few college administrations are doing the right thing when it comes to stopping sexual violence on campus - this spring’s report by the Center for Public Integrity details just how negligent most schools are being. Still, it’s best to start by making a good faith effort to go through the proper channels, even if you have little hope it will work. This will accomplish two things: it will stake out the high ground for you, which puts you in a strong negotiating position if things get ugly. And it might surprise you by working, which would be great and save you and others a lot of time and effort.

What does “going through the proper channels” look like? It’s a little different on every campus, but basically, you’ll want to try to meet with the dean in charge of student life, or whomever makes decisions about what trainings are mandatory and what trainings don’t exist. It may help to take an ally to that meeting who has more clout at the university than you do – a tenured professor who agrees with you, perhaps? A health educator? The student body president? Again, you know more than I do about the specifics of who’s available at your school, but bringing a powerful friend (or even asking the powerful friend to initiate the meeting and take you along) could help if one is available. It’s also just nice to have a second person there in the meeting - as long as it’s an articulate person who understands the issues, having a pal there doubles the chance that one of you will say whatever the thing is that might convince the dean. But don’t bring more than one ally, or it may make the dean feel like you’re trying to corner them.

At the meeting, be prepared and sincere. Meet with your ally beforehand to map out your argument and your strategies. Data is always good - demonstrate the scope of the problem as clearly and inarguably as possible. But don’t forget to also appeal to the emotions. If you’re willing to tell your own story and share the impact being assaulted had on your life and your education, do that. If you’d rather not, tell someone else’s story, with their permission. Bring letters from survivors describing the impact the attacks had on them. Make the situation real for the dean.

Once you’ve made your case for the need for action, present your proposed solution. If you’re looking for mandatory training, SAFER is a great organization to connect with. SAFER will also help you organize around this issue on campus - that’s what they’re for. So do reach out to them regardless. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that I do campus anti-violence education as well - you can read about the trainings I offer, and get in touch with me here.

Whatever you propose, if you find you’re meeting with reluctance, it’s not a bad idea to mention that Title IX - the same statute that forces schools to offer equal athletic opportunities to girls and boys - also specifically obligates schools to prevent and remedy sexual harassment and assault. (That’s not my opinion - the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in 1992.) If you want more info about using Title IX to compel your school to act, get in touch with the awesome folks at the Victim Rights Law Center.

If you do all that at your meeting and still get a “no,” or endless stonewalling, it’s time to organize. And I don’t just mean students. There are three constituencies that have particular leverage with college administrations: parents, alumni, and prospective students. If you can activate one or more of these groups to pressure the administration to get serious about sexual assault prevention on campus, you stand a real chance to make change.

The most natural fit of those three should be the parents. What parent wants to think that the college they’re paying all that money to, that they’ve entrusted with the care of their child, isn’t taking effective measures to keep their child safe from rape? Unfortunately, parents are also the group that’s most difficult to organize – it will likely require a one-to-one effort, in which you organize students to ask their own parents to call the administration and demand a comprehensive sexual assault prevention program. Give them the same basic pitch you prepared for your meeting - outline the need, give emotional examples of impact, and detail your proposed solution and the university’s obligation to do something. And provide parents with a suggested script and the phone numbers you want them to call, to make it easier for them to participate. If you can make this happen in big enough numbers, I’d be surprised if the administration doesn’t start singing a new tune.

Alumni also have clout, because the administration wants them to donate money, now and for the rest of their lives. And the alumni may be easier to organize – you can find many of them through Facebook, and some schools have a progressive alumni association – if yours does, see if you can get them involved. Whatever alumni you find who seem passionate about the cause should be pressed into service to reach out to all the other alumni they know – think of it as a giant alumni phone tree. Get them to also call the administration if you can. For those for whom that seems like too much effort or confrontation, circulate a petition they can sign.

As for prospective students, you may have to get creative, because the administration isn’t likely to hand over their contact list of prospects. You also don’t really want to scare them away from your school – of course, you’re already there, so you want to attract some awesome new people to your community. What you want is for the administration to fear that you will scare them off. If none of the above strategies have worked, you can up the ante by guerilla-flyering campus tours, or by publicly reaching out to everyone who’s joined the prospects group for your school on Facebook. But again, keep in mind that this tactic will only work if the administration knows about it – there’s no point in just scaring away high school students. Be strategic and judicious if you go down this road - it’s going to be perceived as a pretty hostile act, which can compromise and conversation more difficult. I’d look at it as a last resort.

There’s one last group with clout that I haven’t mentioned yet – your university’s trustees. This is like the Board of Directors of your college. They definitely have the power to help you out here, but getting access to them can be tricky, and it can be hard to predict what they’ll do. They might take the issue very seriously, not only because they care but also because they don’t want the school to be vulnerable to lawsuits. But they may act in unpredictable ways - for example, they may mandate training, but also decide the school should no longer have an internal judicial process for students who’ve been assaulted, because it exposes them to further liability. That would leave students who’ve been assaulted with no recourse but the local police, which is a real crapshoot depending on how well your local precinct deals with these issues. So if you decided to go through the trustees, do it very carefully, and only if you can find an ally on the board who can help you navigate their internal politics.

If none of this works? You can at least start by bringing in non-mandatory education, and secure funding through student groups or other alternative sources.

Good luck - it may be a long and complex process, but know you’re doing important and powerful work. And don’t do it alone - these things can get frustrating and triggering, so make sure you rely on friends and others for support and community along the way.

We’re all in this together.

Here are some links at Scarleteen that might be useful to you in the information you're providing to the administration and to students:

written 15 Oct 2010 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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