As public outrage and awareness intensify, universities around the nation are grappling with one of campus life's cultural mainstays: sexual violence. As acceptance of the scale of the problem grows and attitudes begin to shift, colleges are being scrutinized for a lack of disciplinary action or even investigation into frequent assaults on students.
No student on any campus is safe from sexual assault, but learning institutions are finally, slowly, beginning to address the problem. Humboldt State University has been ahead of that curve — the university's Sexual Assault Prevention Committee, made up of faculty, administrators, community groups and law enforcement, has been around for decades, and was reinvigorated about nine years ago under the leadership of critical race, gender and sexuality studies department chair Kim Berry and communications department chair Maxwell Schnurer. As national attitudes began to lurch forward, HSU garnered a significant grant, launched a student awareness campaign, updated its sexual assault policy and brought modern training to its police officers. Committee members have praised the administration for its dedication to solutions as many colleges have come under fire for practicing rug-sweeping as a PR strategy.
Berry has been on the committee since its inception, and is enthused by the current "national discourse." In addition to headlines, there's a presidential task force and congressional attention. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who's backing legislation aimed at sexual assault, recently predicted an increased public backlash will follow the coming release of a documentary about the issue that recently screened at the Sundance Film Festival. Perhaps most importantly, the federal government has embraced a new interpretation of Title IX — the national law promising gender equity in education — to consider widespread sexual assault an impediment to education and a form of discrimination against women.
"Title IX is being used across the whole nation to implement policies and procedures to prevent sexual assault on campus and then respond to it in an effective manner," Berry said.
The university's policies also fit the standards of a new CSU-wide executive order that schools comply with the state's recent affirmative consent law, which requires universities investigating assaults to ask if all the parties involved in the incident gave "an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity."
The HSU committee has received national attention — earning a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012 and earning recognition of excellence from the department's Office on Violence Against Women in 2014. That money allowed the committee to hire a half-time prevention coordinator to work closely with students, community groups and campus police.
The committee developed Check It, a student-oriented bystander intervention program, which encourages people to step between potential predators and victims, whether it's calling out behavior at parties, helping drunk friends get home or focusing on affirmative consent.
The students that make up the program have been reaching out to campus clubs and offering guidance and "party kits" featuring consent-friendly shwag, like stickers for keg cups and door hangers that read "consent is f$%&ing required."
Culture change may be the trickiest part of the committee's task; the first step is changing the zeitgeist of rape and sexual assault.
Most rapes are committed by someone who knows the victim — 80 to 90 percent, Berry said. The vast majority of assaults are committed by men, and women make up about 90 percent of the victims. While it does occur, victims rarely — about 2 percent of the time, according to Berry — fabricate assaults.
Adding to misconceptions about the perpetrators of assault, Berry said, is a general culture that, indirectly or otherwise, is permissive of sexual assault.
Universities are filled with people who've had 18 years of cultural programming to think of sex as a "thing to get," Berry said, "as opposed to a human experience."
Check It aims to make students comfortable talking about sex and violence, and to encourage them to step in when their peers act out of line.
Another piece of adapting an approach to sexual assault is changing the way university police handle reports. New neurobiological studies about how rape survivors recall traumatic events have prompted new interview tactics around the nation, including at HSU.
Lynne Soderberg, who acted as the University Police Department's chief for three years before retiring earlier this month, said the department was always "survivor-centered," meaning it took the time to connect with students and build a rapport with survivors.
Still, when victims recall assaults, "the trauma itself can get in the way of an accurate recollection," Soderberg said. "For law enforcement, sometimes it looks like a person is not telling the full story or not making sense ... when really that's not what's going on."
New research indicates that statements are often more clear and complete when a victim has had a good night's sleep following an assault, and UPD has changed its interview policy to encourage rest before completing an interview. It's the same tactic that police departments take with officers who have been in traumatic situations. "If the survivor is willing to give us a more in-depth statement after time to sleep, it's much better," Soderberg said.
UPD held its first training with this new understanding last fall, and Soderberg said at least one officer recalled an interview where it felt like "pieces were missing" from the victim's statement. Following the training the officer told Soderberg, "I get it now."
Soderberg said she hopes the victim interview trainings continue. "Paying attention to what survivors want is important," she said, adding that new chief Donn Peterson feels the same way.
Still, Berry said, sexual assaults are severely underreported, especially to police. HSU's Clery Report, a federally mandated disclosure of campus crime, shows that students reported four sexual assaults on campus to police in 2013, all four of which took place in the university's residential facilities. In 2012, five assaults were reported, four of which took place in residential facilities. One, also in a residence hall, was reported in 2011.
But initial results from a recent survey conducted by the sexual assault prevention committee show that incidents of harm reflect the national average, which shows that roughly one in five women have been victims of sexual violence during their four to six years attending a university. The results of the survey are still being analyzed, but extrapolating national averages to HSU indicates that more than 800 students currently attending the university will be victimized during their college careers.
The number of reported sexual assaults are going up at HSU — But Berry says that's a "sign that we are taking the issue of sexual violence seriously," not that more assaults are occurring. The collaboration between the sexual assault prevention committee, students, university police, the administration and community groups means students are becoming more empowered to report the incidents when they do occur.
"Those numbers all of a sudden start going up when you start doing the work we're doing," Berry said. "That's a good thing."
Berry's researched and worked to prevent sexual assault for 30 years, and is excited by the recent attention being paid by HSU and universities around the country.
"I have the hope that 50 years from now we'll look back at this period of time and wonder, 'How was it possible for a culture of degradation, subjection and violence to go on and be accepted as business as usual for so many decades?'
"I'm hoping we will look back in horror."