“I worry our students aren’t informed,” Dr. Mary Jo Gonzales, the University of Rhode Island’s Assistant Vice President for Students and Dean of Students said.
Sexual assault happens on the University of Rhode Island’s campus’ and officials are dedicated to bettering the problem.
Nationwide, sexual assault on college campuses has garnered increased attention since last spring. College students are demanding more awareness for and from their peers and changes in policies and the Obama Administration seems to be responding. In January 2014, President Barack Obama issued the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, aimed at creating safer universities around the country.
According to the White House, among its many responsibilities the task force would, “Provide educational institutions with best practices for preventing and responding to rape and sexual assault, increase the public’s awareness of an institution’s track record in addressing rape and sexual assault, and enhance coordination among federal agencies to hold schools accountable if they do not confront sexual violence on their campuses.”
It is mandatory for each university to have a Clery Report, which documents the number of crimes that occur each year. URI’s most updated Clery Report from 2010 through 2012 says there were a total of 37 forcible sex offences during that span.
According to Racine Amos, coordinator of violence prevention and advocacy service (VPAS), one of the greatest challenges to preventing sexual assault is a complainant’s willingness to report the incident. Â Having a program like VPAS at a university will increase the numbers of reports, she said.
“If the Clery Reports show numbers, it means people are making reports,” Amos said. “If other universities do not show numbers, it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”
Gonzales says it is critical to reach all incoming freshman to the university because the transition into college can be precarious. During orientation, skits on alcohol, consent and URI’s standards are presented to all the students. The topic is also addressed during URI 101. Along with freshman, Gonzales said that students in Greek life and athletics are also found to be at a higher risk than normal.
The White House’s statistics on sexual assault are staggering. They cite nearly 1 in 5 women have been raped in her lifetime, “51% of female victims were raped by a current or former intimate partner, and 41% were raped by an acquaintance. Stranger rape, in contrast, accounts for 14% of the total.”
“We continue to create a culture of safety,” Gonzales said. She said 30 percent of incoming students have had prior use of alcohol so substance abuse education is also addressed. “Alcohol makes situations so much more tenuous,” she said.
The Office of Student Life works closely with faculty and staff, URI Police, Health Services, VPAS and the Women’s Center while they continue to work on sexual assault on campus. Gonzales has oversight of the entire process and makes sure that students are treated with equity within the system.
This year the university wants to improve training for faculty and staff on how to respond when a student approaches them in confidence after being assaulted. She said they aim to respond in a “trauma informed way” without shaming or persuasion when helping handle the situation. She said staff should be responding to complainants with questions like, “How’re you doing?” or “What can I do?”
Depending on what the complainant or assaulted student wishes to pursue with their case, the university offers a plethora of resources to aid their comfort. VPAS does not handle the investigative process but will talk to students about their options: hospital exams, counseling, taking a leave of absence or changing residence.
If the complainant decides to follow the judicial route (complainants have up to seven years to make this decision) against the charged students, they both have equal time and process during the investigation. The complainant has two choices from here; they can choose an administrative hearing or a conduct board to investigate the allegations. The conduct board is made up of four trained students, one faculty member and one conduct board advisor. Last year there were six administrative members trained under the requirements of Title IX and eight students part of the conduct board. Records of the students within the conduct board must be clean and there is a GPA requirement.
Once a determination is reached, the charged student is found either responsible or not, and expulsion is an option. If the accused student is found responsible, he or she is not allowed back to the university until the complainant has left URI.
“We have some gaps in our training,” said Gonzales. “Questions like how do we give education for students on the peripheral.” Sexual assault awareness is difficult to shed light on to students who do not participate in clubs or school-run activities. She said there will be a higher focus on bystander safety this year. She plans on conducting a campus wide survey to improve the campus culture.
“Every case has the potential to be mishandled,” said Gonzales. “The faculty can be unresponsive to students or the charged student and complainant will violate the no-contact order.”
URI was part of the original federal grant included in the Violence Against Women Act between seven and 10 years ago that triggered Â more proactive education on sexual assault on college campuses. Gonzales said that URI’s conduct system already meets the requirements that are being proposed by Obama’s task force.
Amos and VPAS plan on continuing their awareness events and going to certain classes whenever professors allow them to. She says they have 15 student educators but are looking for more males in order to achieve change. Last year, VPAS assisted eight students, faculty and staff in their prevention program. She said the training for peer educators will be quadrupling for this year. Amos said people generally visit two to three times to begin their path of healing.
URI’s student conduct can be found on the website, which details further information on reporting an assault or crime.