Wednesday, April 24, 2013
SMU emphasizes awareness and support in changing sexual assault culture
Crimes that once went unreported are now being met with swift and effective response.
University Park Brightly colored posters with bold messages that read: “Alert! Recent Sexual Assault on Campus!” are plastered on doors and buildings across SMU’s campus. Faculty members and students have posted these flyers as part of an ongoing initiative to raise awareness about sexual assault. While it is often difficult to miss these neon signs, it’s impossible to miss the meaning behind them –- a message that hasn’t always been so apparent.
SMU students have recently noticed a major surge in campus crime reports. Diana Mansour is an SMU junior who wanted to live on Daniel Street her senior year. Traditionally, Daniel Street’s close proximity to campus has made it a popular and convenient location for SMU students. This year, however, the area has fallen victim to more than one sexual assault.
“When I showed my mom crime alert emails from this year, she was like, ‘No way you’re living there, Diana,’” she said.
Mansour, who currently resides at the Shelby on SMU Boulevard, also never minded walking home at night -– until this year.
Other upperclassmen agree that SMU hasn’t always felt this way.
“The university has significantly increased student awareness about sexual assaults since I’ve been here,” said senior Allegra Nigh.
But what most people don’t realize is that SMU is no less safe than it used to be. If anything, the heightened awareness is creating a safer environment.
According to Karen Click, director of the Women’s Center on campus, “Statistically, we haven’t seen an increase in sexual crimes themselves. What we’re seeing is an increase in reporting –- from both the students, and the university.”
This initiative began about a year ago, when a Daily Campus newspaper series forced SMU to reevaluate the way it handled reports of sexual assault. In September 2012, President R. Gerald Turner created the Task Force on Sexual Misconduct Policies and Procedures to “examine how the University handles allegations of misconduct among students.” Several reports of assault throughout the 2012-2013 academic year, including the John David “J.D.” Mahaffey case that received national attention, have only strengthened this change in culture.
Last spring, SMU student, runner and rape victim Monika Korra released her full story to the public. Following Korra’s story, the Daily Campus ran two articles as part of the “Rape and Its Consequences” series. While the first piece, “Justice brings healing: Monika Korra’s journey,” was a personal profile on Korra, it showed how sharing her story and facing her attackers allowed her to overcome the tragedy. Korra said that it was how she found power in an otherwise helpless situation.
The second piece in the series, “Sweeping rape under the rug,” was a detailed account of how SMU has historically mishandled rape allegations. Prior to the articles’ publication, the university had only dealt with these cases internally -– through what’s called a “grievance process” -– in order to receive federal funding by the government. The story included a statement from SMU Police Chief Richard Shafer saying Korra’s trial was the only sexual assault case in which the suspects were prosecuted successfully that he could recall since joining the force in 1999.
Though the series sparked controversy among SMU administrators, who immediately issued a public response to the Daily Campus’ articles, the writers’ voices made an undeniable impact. The same day that “Sweeping rape under the rug” ran, SMU issued a crime alert significantly faster than usual, according to crime alert records. Additionally, it marked the first case in three years that SMU provided a physical description of the attacker. The Daily Campus made note of the university’s initiative, publishing a story about the “faster, more detailed” crime alerts only a few days later.
SMU investigative journalism professor Jake Batsell, who teaches his students about reporting crime, stressed the importance of providing these physical descriptions. Batsell explained that the traumatic nature of these events may cause victims to mentally block-out certain details, either consciously or subconsciously. Victims describing their attacker’s appearance, and police releasing these details, can be “extremely helpful” in potentially triggering another victim’s memory, Batsell said.
Posters, faster email updates, and physical descriptions aren’t the only way SMU is increasing its efforts to inform the community about rape allegations. Nigh noted that while the communication has been most prominently through frequent emails, “SMU has done a good job in other outlets, too –- word of mouth, teachers, announcements, etc.” She said that all of her professors, despite the area of study, have brought up the topic of rape at least once during class this semester.
One of the many reasons these conversations are so important is because sexual assault affects a greater number of people than most realize. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, also known as RAINN, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every two minutes.
The idea is that “this will never happen to me,” Korra said. But the reality is that it can, and it does. One in five women will be sexually assaulted in college, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
What many people also fail to realize is that it isn’t only strangers committing these crimes -– in fact in most cases, it’s exactly the opposite.
Abigail Boyer is the director of communications and outreach for the Clery Center, the national organization that legally requires all colleges and universities that receive federal financial aid to report their campus crimes. In her years at the institute, Boyer has found that “It is far more likely for students to be hurt by someone they know, usually a friend or acquaintance.”
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice attest to Boyer’s experience at the Clery Center, which say that, contrary to common myth, the victim and attacker know each other in 80 to 90 percent of sexual assault crimes. The department claims that “the more intimate the relationship, the more likely it is for a rape to be completed rather than attempted.”
The Clery Center challenges universities nationwide to be proactive in dealing with campus crimes with its “Beyond the Numbers” initiative. “Beyond the Numbers” recognizes that “Colleges and universities that are effectively educating their students and responding to victims may, and most likely will, have higher numbers.”
According to Boyer, “Rising numbers of sexual assaults does not reflect a greater number of sexual assaults that have occurred.” She explains that the increase is more often due to victims reporting these events because they feel “confident of the response they’ll receive.”
Creating a climate in which victims feel comfortable speaking out is key, considering a mere 20 percent of rape cases are reported, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice studies. Additionally, RAINN reports that 97 percent of rapists “will never spend a day in jail.”
Click supports Boyer’s assertion, and said that she is “proud that we’re finally creating a community where people feel more comfortable coming forward to share their story and talk about these things that have happened, and especially to people we know.”
SMU students and faculty alike hope that the university does not digress, but rather continues to move forward, in creating a communal sense of awareness.
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