GAINING STRENGTH University plans for confronting, solving sexual assault problems on, off campus

Photo illustration by Fumi Nakamura/The News
Photo illustration by Fumi Nakamura/The News

Photo illustration by Fumi Nakamura/The News

With four sexual assaults reported involving Murray State students this semester alone, University leaders are working to educate the campus community on sexual assault and how to better respond to those impacted by it.

Murray State is not alone. The topic has received national attention, with incidents this fall such as the recent rape allegations at University of Virginia, which led to the removal of Greek Life on campus and at Columbia University, where a student carried around her dorm mattress in protest to the way her assault was handled by university officials. The national media has heavily used the term “rape culture” to describe the handling – or lack of handling – of allegations on campus. 

“Yes, I absolutely think there is a rape culture that plays a huge role in how these issues play out on college campuses, but I don’t think it is a product of the college campus, I think it is a product of society in general and how we respond to and deal with these situations,” said Abigail French, director of the Women’s Center.

She said the overall culture is to blame the victim, question what the person did to warrant the assault and what could have been done to prevent it. She said a reaction is to keep these incidents quiet.

“The fact that we have had students who have bravely come forward to report their experiences and ask for our help this semester is a reflection of the work that is already happening on our campus,” she said. “We have worked diligently to make sure that students know where to turn for help should they need it.”

She said she has two goals moving forward. The first is continuing to inform and educate the campus community on sexual assault. The second is to learn how, as a campus, Murray State can better respond to and support students who are impacted by violence.

“There is always room to improve and moving forward is always about learning and improving,” French said.

Increasing funds in the budget for programming in 2015-16 is one of the ways French wants the University to combat such a culture.

INCIDENTS THIS YEAR

In the first nine weeks of the semester, Public Safety and Emergency Management received more reported sexual assaults than in all of 2011, 2012 or 2013.

The most recent incident of sexual assault this semester was reported at Springer Residential College on Oct. 16 at 12:36 a.m. The victim denied prosecution, and the case is closed.

Another was a reported sexual assault that occurred on Oct. 9 at 8:11 p.m. at Regents Residential College. The victim knew the alleged assailant, according to a campus wide safety alert email sent on Oct. 10. The case is still under investigation.

On Sept. 12 at 11:57 a.m., a student reported an incident of “unwanted sexual contact with an acquaintance”, at Regents. The incident occurred on Aug. 29. The victim declined prosecution and the case is closed.

On Sept. 3, the first report of a student being sexually assaulted off campus was made from Hester Residential College. The incident is still being investigated by the Mayfield Police Department.

Camisha Duffy, Title IX coordinator, said students across the country struggle with how they will be received by their peers if it comes out that they made a sexual assault allegation.

“Historically, across the country, those who bring the allegations are concerned that others will not believe them and are hesitant to report for that reason,” she said.

Another reason students might fear making a report is because they feel they would be pressured to file criminal charges, Duffy said. The person bringing the allegation is presented with the options available so that they can make the best decision for them. University officials and counselors would provide any student who comes forward with an allegation with all the options, Duffy said.

“Central to any institution’s ability to comply with Title IX is a notion of trust,” she said. “Trust is not easily gained and is a much more difficult task under the alleged circumstances associated with a Title IX violation.”

Duffy said it is more common that other students make the referral.

In a smaller campus such as Murray State, the victim having to see the assailant and even sharing friends can be an issue when coming forward.

“(Murray State) is not such a big campus that if you have a conflict with a person you can go without seeing them,” French said. “I think the fear relating to victim blaming is if thinking: ‘if I get this person in trouble, we have common friends involved,’ along with the fear of losing friends and having people be angry with you.”

PLANS FOR THE FUTURE

French said when a person experiences violence they have had their basic sense of security violated.

“Sometimes a person gets a sense of security from seeing the aggressor held accountable,” she said. “Sometimes a person regains their sense of self through counseling, being heard, believed and validated. Sometimes those things come from their peers showing support and understanding. Some people experience healing through new relationships that show love and respect rather than violence.”

French said, like most public universities, Murray State’s resources are stretched thin.

She said the staff charged with dealing with referrals and counseling issues already had other full time positions.

“Murray State has made a commitment to reallocate resources to address the issues of violence on campus,” she said. “The support services are there and just keep growing.”

This semester, the Counseling Center, in conjunction with the Purchase Area Sexual Assault Center, began a support group for sexual assault survivors. The Merryman House, in partnership with the Women’s Center, has seen a significant increase in the number of students utilizing the sources as ways of support, French said.

“We are excited about these partnerships and we will continue to look at partnerships and resources that will prove the support we provide to students,” French said.

There are several programs aimed at spreading awareness of sexual assault on campus.

This includes the use of interactive theater to engage students during Great Beginnings and looking into programs similar to Nonviolent Sexuality, Students Fight Back and the Female Orgasm, all of which took place on campus this semester.

Programs such as Realities on Campus and Take Back the Night, which will occur next semester, will continue to improve, French said.

Bystander intervention will continue to be a strong emphasis as well, along with educating students regarding consent.

“We are working to make these trainings accessible to all students in a variety of formats,” French said. “Additionally we are working with various groups on campus to make these trainings an annual part of their group culture.”

Duffy said nationally, universities are working to increase student, faculty and staff participation in campus-wide training.

She said they are surveying which mechanisms work best at reaching a critical mass of the University community, with a goal of reaching as many people as possible and having the message seep into campus culture.

This semester, the University asked students to take an online training course about harassment, discrimination and sexual assault on Canvas. Participants had to score a 100 percent on the module to pass.

“Students often cite having completed the training and sharing possible next steps to fellow students who disclose allegations,” Duffy said.

At the Board of Regents meeting in August, the board voted to make sexual assault training mandatory for the entire University community.

President Bob Davies said at the meeting the University would have a “zero tolerance policy for sexual assault.”

He said the University takes every report, complaint and allegation of sexual assault individually and seriously.

“(The University) will continue to do so and will investigate incidents quickly,” he said. “We also need to work to continue education and raise awareness. We need to have an environment that when these incidents occur, we handle it properly. If we fail to do so we aren’t doing our job.”

He said the University cannot brush these incidents under the rug.

“I am passionate about this. The safety of our students cannot ever be second tier; it has got to be first,” Davies said.

Story by Rebecca Walter, Staff writer