The long and difficult quest to combat sexual assault on college campuses


Taken on the way to the library at DU after my interview with Dr. Gillian Kaag, director of CAPE at DU. [Photo taken by Siobhan Stocks-Lyons]

Sexual assault is amongst one of the most prevalent issues that college campuses face, yet the numbers of assaults per year are still continuing to increase despite many colleges’ efforts to reduce them. In a study done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics for the 2014-15 year, an average of 21% of female and 7% of male college students experienced sexual assault upon entering their institution. While the number of sexually unrelated crimes are decreasing within colleges, sexual assaults continue to rise.

Colleges are attempting to implement programs with the goal of decreasing the numbers of victims each year, but further action should continue being strategized for the safety of the student body. I had the opportunity to speak with a close friend, fellow DU student and sexual assault survivor who has asked to remain anonymous on her views regarding how institutions are attempting to combat the rates of sexual assault on campuses.

“I feel like many college campuses, DU included, have been improving the ways they actively combat sexual assault, but I think there is so much more that can be done,” the anonymous source said. “I like to call it a “band-aid” solution. There needs to be more emphasis on training college students about what healthy consent is and how to give and receive it. There is too much emphasis on how to protect oneself (especially how girls “should” act) and not enough emphasis on, and excuse my frankness, how not to be a rapist.”

In addition to the words from my anonymous source, Lena Aaron, a freshman at the University of Denver shared with me her thoughts on how colleges are handling the severe problem.

“It has certainly gotten a lot better over the years,” Aaron said. “Sexual assault used to be even more “hush hush” and there was a strong lack of media recognition. No one would get in trouble or believe what victims were saying to be true when they came out with their stories.”

Aaron went on to tell me from her experience as a student at DU that campus safety in her eyes could become more involved in helping students home from the bars or house parties and assess their physical state before sending them to a detox center. Many students are scared to “get in trouble” if they call for help.

The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey that surveyed 18,000 men and women regarding their experiences with sexual assault found that 42.2% were assaulted under the age of 18 years old, 37.4% between the ages of 18-24, 14.2% between 25-35, and 6.2% over the age of 35. In addition to the survey, it was proven that victims were either friends or acquaintances with their attacker prior to the incident. My close friend and fellow DU student fell into that category.

“I was back at home to see my friends graduate from college and we went to celebrate at some bars after the ceremony and ended up running into a guy that I had been on two dates with,” the anonymous source said. “I never liked him romantically, but felt he was a decent guy.”

Aside from rape, many college students will experience other forms of sexual assault ranging from inappropriate touching or kissing to being pressured into consenting to have sex.

Title IX was designed to require colleges to protect their students from sexual assault and aid in the aftermath, but many students feel that they are being poorly served by their campuses and that campuses are not following proper Title IX protocol.

Many students feel that going to report sexual assault on their campus doesn’t end up helping them, so they refrain from speaking out.

In the time period from 2009-2014, there was a steady increase in Title IX complaints related to sexual violence and how it was not being handled adequately enough. In 2009 there were 11 recorded Title IX complaints made by students and by 2014 that number had jumped to 37 complaints.

85 colleges across the U.S. between 2010-2014 had pending Title IX sexual violence investigations against them and 32 additional colleges were under other forms of Title IX related investigations. College campuses fear loosing donor money, prestige and reputation if cases of sexual assault become too public, so schools often try to handle the cases privately and under the radar. The repercussions for the attacker often end up being much lighter than what they would face if law enforcement was involved.

In response to the many Title IX charges against universities across the country, the Obama Administration and colleges have begun to make significant strides to better protect students from becoming victims of sexual assault.

In May of 2014, the Obama Administration released new recommendations for combating the number of assaults seen on college campuses. The recommendations included new guidelines to better survey students on their experiences, the implementing of sexual misconduct policies catered to meet the needs of individual campuses, and using reporting protocol that makes confidentiality a key component when a student is reporting an assault.

The University of Denver has implemented a Center for Advocacy, Prevention, and Empowerment (CAPE) where victims can go for free and confidential support while in the process of healing from the trauma. CAPE provides a 24/7 hotline and many resources in the community that they may take advantage of that are partnered with the university. B.O.S.S. training is also offered to students to teach them how to be strong bystanders and capable of intervening in potentially dangerous situations.

The CAPE office is located in Nelson Hall at the University of Denver and there I was able to interview Dr. Gillian Kaag, the director of CAPE. We primarily spoke about the efforts that DU is making to further protect its students from sexual assault.

 “DU is working to enhance services in all areas.  This past year, DU increased staffing in the Title IX office with the hiring of a full-time Title IX Coordinator and two full-time investigators.  As we head into the next school year, DU is looking to expand in other areas with the addition of a full-time advocate and Coordinator of CAPE advocacy services, a full-time prevention specialist who will focus on gender violence prevention, and I will shift into the position of Assistant Director of Clinical Services and Trauma Response where I will oversee advocacy services and enhance trauma treatment response at DU.”

Another program being implemented by CAPE is B.O.S.S. training and this program was something that Dr. Kaag was specifically very pleased with.

“I’m proud of our “Be a B.O.S.S.” program and have been impressed with the student engagement around prevention, including Undergraduate Student Government requiring all student organizations to go through the training this year,” said Dr. Kaag.

At a local level in addition to DU, Dr. Kaag was very impressed with the strong prevention and response programs that can be found at CU Boulder and Colorado College.

Educating bystanders, as well as encouraging alumni and parents to join in the struggle has the potential to make a large impact for the good.

Alumni often contribute large donations back to their Alma Maters and if they ceased to give their donations until some real progress was ensued on the topic of sexual assault, you can be rest assured that colleges would implement some serious change and start taking huge strides to protect their students’ safety. Going along with that, if parents voice their concerns of sending their children into an environment where they fear they will be assaulted, colleges may be less hesitant to address the issue more effectively.

In addition to implementing different trainings and support groups, threatening college reputations, influencing people’s perceptions of institutions negatively and threatening funding may be the most effective avenues to be used to enact change in an area that has struggled for so long to make significant progress. Aaron pointed out that this would most successfully work among the thousands of small private institutions that could not physically operate without those hefty donations.

“For many small schools including DU, pulling donations from alumni or like others could potentially have a large impact on the actions institutions would be willing to take to stop the epidemic,” Aaron said.

The option to make significant change is possible and universities are slowly but surely putting more effort into reducing the rates of sexual assaults, but there is always room for improvement to keep students safe and protected on campus.



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