Sexual Assault - Out of the Shadows Part I

Posted at: 10/31/2012 1:26 PM
Updated at: 11/15/2012 2:35 PM
By: Brittany Falkers

It's not an easy subject to talk about, but sexual assault cannot be ignored.  Some of our local colleges are getting students talking about their resources and experiences in our eyewitness news special report - sexual assault, out of the shadows.

Sexual assault can happen to anyone and advocates, such as Candice Harshner from the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA), say new students on campus are no exception. 

"Younger students on campus are much more likely to be a victim of assault.  We know those first few weeks, they're especially vulnerable," Harshner said. 

A combination of first time party-goers and unfamiliar new faces can create a prime situation for sexual assaults by someone the victim knows or acquaintance rapes, according to Harshner.

The University of Minnesota Duluth's (UMD) student newspaper, The Statesman, recently brought issues of sexual assault on campus to light. It got both students, faculty and staff talking.

"I was glad to see the Statesman article come out because it did prompt that conversation and get that out there," UMD Police Chief Scott Drewlo said. 

The articles found a big discrepancy between the number of sexual assaults occurences and the number of victims actually reporting.

Judith Karon is the director of human resources at UMD.  She says it's no secret that the number of reported sexual assaults is not as high as a campus of UMD's size should be.  "The number of results are far below where the research experts tell us we should be," she said. 

Surveys collected by the statesman say that every year about 150 to 300 of it's female students say they experience sexual assault or attempted assault.  However, from 2008 to 2010 just three sexual assaults on UMD's campus were reported, according to the federal government. 

The problem isn't unique to UMD, according to the school's Director of the Office of Cultural Diversity Susanna Pelayo-Woodward.  "I think under-reporting is a national problem, it's widespread in this country and all over the world," she said. 

In fact, the University of Wisconsin Superior (UWS) and the College of St. Sholastica (CSS) also acknowledge that victims are not reporting.

Director for the Student Center for Health and Well Being at CSS, Tad Sears, deals with sexual assault cases on campus.  He says it's pretty obvious that the number of actual assaults and reported sexual assaults doesn't add up. 

"We have pretty strong data about how many students have been sexually assaulted within the last year.  We know students are not reporting these realities," Sears said. 

Among the issues surrounding sexual assault on campus, the Statesman articles also highlighted a need for more proactive education, especially when just the definition of sexual assault can be difficult.

The U.S. Department of Education defines sexual assault as any forced sexual act against another person - including when the victim is incapable of giving consent. For instance, if a student gets drunk at a party and someone has sex with them, with questionable consent, it is still sexual assault.  But, Associate Dean of Students at UWS, Tammy Fanning, says without some basic education some students don't know that.

"We want our students to be empowered enough to say, this is not right, this is violation of myself and of the law," Fanning said. 

The first step to empowerment is education.  All three school's provide workshops during welcome week.  However, getting students to start thinking about assault isn't easy and sexual assault education is not mandatory on any of the three campuses right now.

"It's not your most popular topic.  There's a lot of wonderful new things that you want to learn when you're a new student.  So, if it's not mandatory, then it's not necessarily going to be the thing that your go to," Harshner said. 

Prevention education is essential, according to advocates, but that no matter how much is in place, sexual assault will still happen.  So, above all else, students need to know where to go and what to do if a sexual assault does occurs.

"They need to know who their resources are.  They need to know that there is someone out there who believes them, there are people who will help them," Harshner said. 

To get that information out, PAVSA advocates are now at UMD twice a week and they also have a strong presence at CSS.  UWS just added office hours too, with advocates from the Center Against Sexual and Domestic Violence (CASDA).

To help with the finances it takes to bring advocates and guest speakers to campus CSS just received a U.S. Department of Justice Grant. UMD and CSS have competed for the grant for the past three years.

While education is a good first step, advocates and school officials agree, our society has to change its attitude and approach toward sexual assault to make a change.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted please reach out to an advocacy organization near you. Trained PAVSA advocates are there with free and confidential help at their 24-hour crisis line (218) 726-1931. 

CASDA has offices in Superior (715) 392-3136 and Bayfield County (715) 373-0870.  Call toll-free at 800-649-2921.