Increasing sexual assault reports show growing awareness

(Devon Nitz | The Oswegonian)
(Devon Nitz | The Oswegonian)

According to the Clery Report, six cases of sexual assault were reported on the Oswego State campus in 2012. This is the highest number in several years, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes. According to One in Four USA, a nonprofit group dedicated to rape prevention, only 30 percent of rape survivors report the incident to the police.

If the six cases of sexual assault reported on Oswego State’s campus represent 30 percent of the actual number of incidents, there would be 14 cases that went unreported in 2012.

That means more reported cases is a good thing. Lisa Evaneski, associate dean of students and Title IX coordinator at Oswego State, attributes more reported cases to increasing awareness.

“I think the number reported is still low, but yes, I think our efforts in talking about this with students and employees, we have seen the number rise (which is good!),” Evaneski said in an email.

Since it was passed in 1972, Title IX has banned sex discrimination throughout the college and campus community. And while many people associate it with gender equality in athletics, it also prohibits sexual harassment, including sexual violence, on campus.

Title IX requires the college to investigate sexual assault cases that are reported to the Office of Student Conduct and Compliance, even if they are not reported to the police. So sometimes if victims choose not to report to the police there are more cases reported through Student Conduct than there are at University Police, making the actual number of reported cases even more unclear.

University Police Chief John Rossi said this “notoriously underreported” crime is hard to track, since the data can only say so much about what’s actually happening.

“There’s really no way to predict or adequately measure how or when these offenses are occurring,” Rossi said.

While Rossi admits it’s impossible to know how many sexual assaults are really occurring, he said he does know that when it comes to Oswego State, there’s a similar thread in these cases.

“There is a common denominator with almost all the offenses that we see in that category and that’s alcohol use by either the perpetrator and/or the victim,” Rossi said.

According to One in Four USA, 75 percent of men and 55 percent of women were drinking or taking drugs just before an incident of acquaintance rape.

Shelly Sloan, the health promotion coordinator at The Lifestyles Center, said when it comes to sexual assault, the use of alcohol creates a lot of gray areas.

“It’s really fuzzy when alcohol’s involved because, I mean, we have a survey that says something like 37 percent of our students consume alcohol prior to being sexually active, so I mean that’s a huge red flag right there,” Sloan said. “Because you might mistake a no for a yes, or you may be reading body language wrong, or you just might make bad decisions that you normally wouldn’t make, so when you put alcohol into anything it becomes really, really hairy.”

Sloan also said that many people are not aware that any non-consensual situation is considered sexual assault. According to Oswego State’s annual Clery Report “a person who is drunk, drugged, otherwise incapacitated or underage cannot consent to sexual activity.” That means that drunken consent cannot be considered consent.

Kelley Evertz, public relations representative for Oswego’s Women’s Center, said there are misconceptions when it comes to sexual assault and drinking. She said at the Women’s Center, the main focus is getting that information out to the public.

“There’s definitely a lot of gray areas and we just try to explain to people that you shouldn’t ever feel like ‘Oh well I was drinking, so it doesn’t matter,’” Evertz said. “It’s always your body, and what you say goes.”

Every year the Women’s Center holds an event called Take Back the Night. The event aims to create awareness about sexual assault, and allows students to share their own stories.

Rossi said that sexual assault reports can be affected by an awareness event like this one.

“We find sometimes if there’s been a major push, especially around the Take Back the Night timeframe, we may get a few more calls than we normally do, but we’ve also found that these cases seem to go in cycles,” Rossi said.

Rossi said that one positive is that there has not been a “stranger attack” on campus in over 20 years. That means every case of sexual assault since then has been a case where the victim knew the rapist, even just for a few hours. In a country where so many people imagine sexual assault as a case on “Law and Order: SVU,” Rossi said avoiding stranger attacks is a victory for campus safety.

“We haven’t had a stranger attack here in over 20 years, and I think it’s because our officers are out there. Incidents that we have been dealing with, it’s acquaintances, people knew each other before an incident happened,” Rossi said. “People jumping out of the bushes and attacking somebody just doesn’t happen here, because we try to get to those people if they’re acting suspiciously before they get the chance to do something bad.”

Since all of Oswego State’s incidents of sexual assault deal with acquaintances, or even friends, this could make reporting the case awkward, or even prevent some victims from reporting at all.

“Many more cases are reported to other offices other than police,” Evaneski said. “We keep records of those and they are not reported the same way if they are not investigated by police.  We have had many victims/survivors want assistance without formally adjudicating the case or filing criminal charges.”

Sometimes victims do not want to report their case to the police. But if they tell anyone about what happened, their case still may end up being reported by the Office of Student Conduct and Compliance. That’s because many people on campus are required to report it to Student Conduct.

Resident Assistant Allen Wengert said RAs are required to undergo Title IX training with Evaneski. The training stresses that it’s the RA’s job not only to provide support for residents, but also report the incidents.

Under Title IX, all residence hall staff members are mandated reporters. Wengert said he always lets residents know he cannot legally keep their secrets.

“If it’s something that serious and they tell me straight up before they tell me what it is that it’s serious, I tell them right off the bat that if it’s something really serious I’m going to at least have to tell my hall director,” Wengert said. “RAs are mandated reporters, and that’s stressed over and over during Title IX training.”

But Wengert also said he understands why some residents might not want to report this type of case to the police, especially when the assailant is someone the victim knows.

“The majority of them are people that they know, and that’s tough because if you report it, the person’s going to know that you’re reporting them,” Wengert said.

According to Evaneski, education about Title IX has been important in increasing awareness about what is considered sexual assault and how to report it. This education does not only apply to RAs in training, but also to the greater community.

“For years we have done programming with first-year students, in residence halls, through University Police and in conjunction with student organizations and local agencies to get the message out about reporting and services available,” Evaneski said. “In the summer of 2011, all colleges and universities receiving federal financial aid received a Dear Colleague Letter from the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights asking all institutions to do a better job at getting that information out to students.  Since that time, we have reviewed all of our policies and procedures and in compliance with and assistance from the Office of Civil Rights have made improvements to our reporting process and resources available.”

Sloan said the Lifestyles Center also plays a role when it comes to education about Title IX and sexual assault in general. Every week The Lifestyles Center produces a reader called Toilet Talk, which is placed in bathroom stalls around campus. Sloan said Title IX-themed Toilet Talks are one way that information is spread about the issue. The Lifestyles Center also spreads information through blog posts about sexual assault, visits to classes and poster campaigns, and Sloan said awareness is increasing.

“I feel like people are overhearing things and now knowing because we’ve done so much education with Title IX and its importance that they might’ve overheard before and went ‘Oh, wow, that stinks,’ and now they’re saying ‘Oh, wow, that stinks. I need to tell someone,’” Sloan said. “At least people are being given options, which I think is really important. And they have the option to say, ‘No, I don’t want to do anything,’ and that’s fine, but at least we can check in with that student and make sure that they’re safe.”

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