After the investigation, MSU tries to patch holes in sexual assault policy, resources for students
With the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ (OCR) investigation wrapping up after finding MSU had mishandled a number of cases, sexual assault has once again been dominating headlines and interest.
The administration points to various sexual assault programs designed to help with information, education, prevention and support for sexual assault survivors, claiming they’ve improved over the past years and will continue to improve, although that claim is looked at with disdain from some survivors.
Only weeks ago, the OCR found MSU at fault for, among other things, its lack of timeliness in how it handled cases.
Social relations and policy senior Emily Kollaritsch, whose story has been featured before in The State News, was relieved the findings were finally published.
“I’m glad finally that’s in writing, and that they can’t hide behind lies anymore,” Kollaritsch said.
She also said, regarding the OCR findings and the phone conference immediately afterwards, that President Lou Anna K. Simon didn’t admit a fair level of responsibility.
“It seemed more like President Simon wasn’t actually admitting responsibility and acknowledging that she did foster an unsafe environment,” she said.
Ashley, a sexual assault survivor who withheld her last name, hoped for a cultural change around campus, but said she thought it was unlikely for upperclassmen.
“I think so much damage has been done that it’s going to take a while (for cultural change), because I definitely think people are still really hurt and they’re still feeling the impact of the past, so maybe this will help change the freshman class,” Ashley said.
Though MSU claims it has improved how it handles and prevents sexual assault on campus, Kollaritsch said she believes their motives were more a reaction to OCR pressure than a true desire to fix the problem.
“You can do all the PR you want, but you have to actually do something about the problem,” Kollaritsch said. “You can’t just put up posters and call it good.”
The Red Zone
Ashley was sexually assaulted early in her freshman year, she said in a letter to The State News in May. This time period corresponds roughly to “The Red Zone”. Though her assailant was eventually tried in a university misconduct hearing and found guilty, he was allowed back on campus during commencement last spring.
MSU administrators acknowledge national trends and statistics when it comes to on-campus sexual assault and make it a goal to spread awareness among students, especially incoming freshmen and transfer students, at the start of a new school year.
The months between the start of fall semester and Thanksgiving are often referred to nationally as “The Red Zone,” and during this time period there are more sexual assaults on college campuses than any other time in the school year. Students across the country, typically freshmen women, are most likely to be sexually assaulted during their entire time at school.
Though specific numbers were not available from different program coordinators at MSU, at least the concept that students are more likely to be sexually assaulted during the first months of school is taken into serious consideration by MSU officials.
“The statistics (about the Red Zone) are common knowledge to many prevention programs,” Kelly Schweda, the Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Prevention Program Coordinator, wrote in an email. “As a result, most programs have a big push to educate their students as soon as they get to campus.”
MSU police Detective Sgt. Andrea Beasinger, a primary investigator of MSU police’s Special Victims Unit, a division designed to better help victims of sexual assault, said sexual assaults are more prevalent at the beginning of the academic year, although there are caveats to that.
The type of people to be sexually assaulted, or those who commit sexual assault, varies. It is not restricted to older men assaulting usually freshmen girls, although alcohol is commonly involved.
Bystander intervention, essentially to see something or say something, is important for stopping sexual assault, Beasinger said.
“That’s a really huge component, especially this time of year, to have people more aware, to look out for those signs of alcohol-facilitated sexual assault or relationship violence especially when there are more parties or things like that going on,” Beasinger said.
Many programs attempt to prevent sexual assault before students even set foot on campus, including MSU’s Sexual Assault First-year Education e-learning program (SAFE) that all freshmen and transfer students are required to take.
After getting on campus, the Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Prevention program (SARV) is another requirement, designed to supplement the e-learning program. Some of its stated goals are to create awareness of sexual assault and education for resources on campus.
Sept. 19 is the first anniversary of the It’s On Us campaign, a White House initiative to address sexual assault on campus. For MSU, the undergraduate student government ASMSU took the initiative in partnering with other campus groups.
Paulette Granberry Russell, Director of the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, said many of the programs are designed to help students understand when something is going wrong, or how to act when a student sees it. It’s to help students understand that sexual assault can happen on campus and how to best prevent it or do something about it if someone see it happening.
“There are ways that we can modify behaviors that can help you best understand what might be going on at that particular moment, help you understand how judgment is impaired by the consumption of alcohol and drugs, help you intervene when there are times that you see something happening, but you’ve got to recognize it when you see it,” Granberry Russell said.
How effective these programs are is a matter of debate, with a markedly bleak opinion of them by many sexual assault survivors.
Although SARV is required by freshmen there is no consequence for not attending. One possible future option discussed by the administration after the OCR report was to enact a harsher punishment.
Ashley said sexual assault is an issue not talked about enough on campus with resources being concealed. One solution to a lack of education, Ashley said, was to include a test on what consent is during certain 101 classes in different colleges.
“When you’re panicked and in that state you don’t know where to go or who to go to, and I feel like there need to be more of a safe place that’s actually advertised,” she said.
When she was assaulted she didn’t know where to go and ending up telling a receptionist who had no training on what to do in that situation.
To some sexual assault survivors, the administration’s handling of their case adds to previous trauma.
“These people who you were supposed to be able to trust, who were supposed to help you heal were actually (re-traumatizing) you in a way and telling you that what happened to you wasn’t that bad, or ‘you need to get over it’ or ‘you shouldn’t be fighting as hard as you are fighting’ and it’s kind of really sad,” Kollaritsch said. “There needs to be more support for survivors.”