Sexual assault prevention – at college and before – discussed at Kuster roundtable
To Olivia Carle, a New London native and rising sophomore at Tufts University, the emerging conversation about sexual assault and harassment on college campuses is appreciated – but she worries that, for many students, it’s coming too late.
“If prevention is done only on college campuses, it’s not going to have the effect it needs to have,” Carle said at a roundtable on campus sexual assault, hosted by U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster. “It needs to start much earlier.”
Carle said she knows this reality all too well, as someone who experienced sexual violence in college and sexual harassment in high school. While she’s spoken out against these issues – generally – Carle said yesterday’s roundtable was the first time she spoke publicly about her personal experiences.
If teenagers who harass or violate their peers go unchecked, Carle said, their behavior might continue – or become even more aggressive – when they get to college.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be about sex,” she said of pre-college consent instruction, “but it starts a conversation about respect for every human being.”
Yesterday’s conversation came on the heels of newly introduced bipartisan legislation – co-sponsored in the House by Kuster and in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte – aimed at holding colleges more accountable for their role in investigating sexual assault cases. The Campus Accountability and Safety Act would, among other things, require colleges to conduct annual surveys on sexual violence and publicize the results, as well as to take other steps to provide support for students who experience assault.
In response to a concern raised at the roundtable, Kuster said she would work on adding an amendment that would focus more specifically on bolstering campuses’ sexual assault prevention and education efforts.
The conversation covered a lot of ground, but Kuster made a point from the outset that she wanted to avoid one topic: alcohol. Too often, she said, discussions on sexual assault inevitably return to drinking – at the expense of addressing other important aspects of prevention. And, she said, such conversations tend to place too much blame on those who were assaulted and not enough on those who assault.
So instead, the roundtable focused on other questions: How should university officials adjudicate sexual assault cases, and how can they make sure they’re trained to address them with sensitivity and fairness? How can colleges also engage students – in Greek life, in athletics and otherwise – on these issues? And how can they encourage students to become active bystanders when they notice a peer who might be at risk for assault?
The roundtable didn’t establish firm answers, but it did underscore the depth of resources available in New Hampshire to come up with solutions.
Carle was one of two student participants, along with Dartmouth College student and sexual assault peer adviser Rachel Funk. Both are active in sexual assault prevention and support programs at their respective institutions.
Others weighing in at the roundtable included representatives from universities, law enforcement and community organizations.
The University of New Hampshire and its Prevention Innovations was one of four higher education institutions nationally tapped to work on research projects as part of the White House’s Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault. The UNH research center’s work focuses on evaluating colleges’ approaches to educating first-year students on sexual misconduct policies and consent, said Prevention Innovations Co-Director Jane Stapleton.
Outside of its work with the White House Task Force, Stapleton said the research center is also working on multiple bystander intervention programs, which are designed to encourage people to intervene “before, during and after instances of sexual and relationship violence and stalking.” Next year, Stapleton added, the center will start work on a “bystander intervention video game.”
Bringing the event to a close, Peggy O’Neil, executive director of WISE of the Upper Valley, reminded the roundtable that all of the other changes discussed at the roundtable hinge on one core principle: “We have to believe victims.”
(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)