In Their Own Hands

Recent research funded by the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that one out of five college women will be sexually assaulted during her time at school. These endemic numbers should stand as a stark wakeup call to administrations, parents, and students alike that safety remains an important issue on campus and off. Some students groups have taken up the call and formed a variety of organizations to educate and protect themselves and their peers. Who are these groups, and how can your administration form a successful partnership with them?

Peer-Led Initiatives
The Bacchus Network represents one of the oldest university- and community-based health and safety initiatives. Formed in 1975 at the University of Florida as a student response to alcohol abuse, the Bacchus Network strives to foster a network of institutions and young adult, peer-led education groups and safety initiatives. “Having the students on the front lines is so important,” said Drew Hunter, president, Bacchus Network. “Incidents usually happen late at night after the administration has gone home. Assaults happen on the student’s turf; it’s important that counseling does, too.”

To empower students, Bacchus provides training and advocates for sensible policies. “To be effective peer counselors, students have to be properly trained,” continued Hunter. “And the administration has to be supportive.”

“Ideally there has to be a combination of student-led initiatives and administrative buy in,” said Joe Samalin, coordinator for Men Can Stop Rape. “There is a tendency to look at universities as safe ivory towers, but that isn’t the case. For the first time in their lives, students are separated from their usual support network, under peer pressure, and in close proximity to each other.” The combination can be dangerous.

Administrative Support Is Critical
An unresponsive administration can add to the danger. Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER) started 10 years ago at Columbia University as a student organization. “The founders were unhappy with the sexual assault policy at the school and founded this national nonprofit,” said Sarah Martino, communications coordinator, SAFER. “An unresponsive administration can lead to a culture of silence, and that is a dangerous thing.” In fact, Martino pointed out that when a school’s assault numbers go up, it actually could be a good sign. “It means that incidents are being reported,” she said.

Still, the Center for Public Integrity recently released many articles documenting the underreporting of sexual assault. In these instances, peer-to-peer counseling could make the difference for individuals traumatized by an attack but afraid to go to the administration with it. “Student initiatives are essential to a healthy campus environment,” said Jonathon Kassa, executive director, Security on Campus, Inc. “The more active the student body, the better the chance that there is no ‘culture of silence.’ It’s never a good idea to say ‘our policy is fine’ and then leave it. We have to always be moving forward. In fact, a school that has no student safety advocacy groups should raise a big red flag to parents and the administration.”

It’s Not Something That Only Happens to Others

Safety officials are already battling a “this can’t happen to me” mentality. “Students can feel impervious to danger,” said Thomas Gebhardt, director of personal safety and off-campus affairs, University at Albany–SUNY. “Sometimes it takes a major incident to push awareness. But that means that policies must always be in place. It’s hard to overcome inertia, but if there are already some programs in place, ramping up becomes easier.”

Even then, many students still feel that crime is something that happens to other people. Robert Pellizzi, president, SecureOnCampus.com, sees it in his sales every day. His company offers a variety of safes, locks, alarms, and date-rape drug tests aimed at the college student, yet his clients are “85 percent parents and grandparents buying for their kids,” he said. “The other 15 percent comes from students buying for a friend.”

He’s even seen it in real life. “I was taking my daughter back to school after a weekend home, and she left her dorm room unlocked with all of her electronics inside,” Pellizzi said.

But when student involvement is high, it can help foster good relations between “town and gown.” “We run an off-campus partnership between us, the police, and another local college,” Gebhardt said. “We also include landlords and the fire department. Neighborhood watches like this reduce crime and enhance everyone’s safety.”

The Pitfalls of Student Involvement
Yet successful, student-run programs can also meet some pitfalls, “particularly on a small campus where confidentiality is an issue,” said Martino. “Also, if an individual incident brings students to action, the administration might feel blamed for an episode that was out of their control. And that could cause some friction.”

All student groups face a similar problem: consistency. “I’m the same person year to year, but it’s hard to get the same set of students involved over and over,” said Gebhardt. “They are a fluid group. Students usually stay involved for one year only before they move on to another activity or graduate.”

There can also be, in some opinions, the wrong kind of student involvement. “Groups that want to be able to carry concealed weapons on campus are great at gathering signatures and getting people involved,” said Kassa, “But that is a group that we could never endorse.” In fact, most national groups will not work with a student group unless the campus administration recognizes it as well.

Fostering that healthy balance is crucial, necessary, and apparently recession-proof. “Even in this economic environment, schools don’t want to cut us,” said Hunter. “’Peer education advisor’ is a job description that will not go away.”

For more information on the findings from The Center for Public Integrity go to www.publicintegrity.org/investigations/campus_assault/#.

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