A 2007 campus sexual assault study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that around one in five women are targets of attempted or completed sexual assault while they are college students.
That makes them four times more likely to become victims than any other age group.
Last April, the Department of Justice released a list of 55 colleges under investigation for the way they handled sexual assault complaints. Whether they be state colleges, elite Ivy League schools or two-year community colleges, less than 5 percent of campus sexual assault is reported to college or law enforcement authorities.
Now some institutions of higher learning do an admirable job of dealing with the problem. They’re equipped with the necessary tools to handle a complex, emotional, difficult situation. Some colleges have sexual assault response teams. Others have partnerships with nearby clinics to ensure proper health care for their students in the wake of an assault.
Other colleges leave a lot to be desired.
But it’s clear that it’s a problem that needs to be addressed publicly — and it needs to be handled delicately, as we all need to be sensitive to the worries and concerns of the victims who have already endured a severe emotional and physical trauma and have no desire to relive it.
Since so many of the cases go unreported, it’s created a culture of rape in many colleges and universities, where perpetrators believe there will be no consequences. All they have to do is hunt for their next victim.
In response to complaints about the way some institutions handle sexual assault cases, about half a dozen states last year debated legislation addressing the problem of campus assaults.
It’s a difficult question. On the one hand, we don’t want to be so heavy-handed as to compel colleges to hand over every case to law enforcement, with no regard to the wants and desires of the victim. On the other hand, we also don’t want perpetrators of sexual assault to think there will be no repercussions.
Different states have chosen different routes when it comes to campus sexual assault.
In Connecticut, Â the first state to enact such legislation last year, colleges are required to work with a community-based organization to create a sexual assault response team to provide confidential counseling or services. They also have to provide students with sexual assault prevention information, report annually to the legislature the number of sexual assaults on campus, and allow students to report incidents anonymously.
In California, colleges have to adopt a policy of “affirmative consent,” meaning that silence does not necessarily mean consent. Also called the “Yes Means Yes” law, it defines consent as “an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity” and reverses the traditional, unwritten rule that unless one party says “no,” the other party can assume he or she consents.Â While this policy, which has also been adopted in New York and New Jersey may sound like a good idea on paper, after speaking with victim advocate groups, the consensus is that it just does not work. Nowhere in the real world will two people make a conscious effort to say “yes” every step of the way when they are being intimate.
College students are adults — but just barely. Many of them are experiencing freedom for the first time. Unfortunately, for many, it’s freedom without responsibility. Add alcohol to the mix and it becomes a potentially dangerous situation.
And that’s why it’s time for the legislature to get involved, if for no other reason than to get everybody — lawmakers, colleges, students, parents and the media — to start talking about this problem instead of sweeping it under the carpet.
We need to do something not only to keep campuses safe and provide a strong response to cases of sexual assault, but to make certain we do it in a way that victims will know they will be treated with the utmost sensitivity.
We owe it to all our students.
Rep. Mia Ackerman
Mia Ackerman is a Democrat representing District 45, Cumberland and Lincoln, in the Rhode Island General Assembly.