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Survey and Interviews Challenge Sexual Assault Statistics

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Sexual assault cases are making headlines across the U.S. in many industries and environments, and college campuses are no exception.

“11.2 percent of all students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation (among all graduate and undergraduate students),” according to the Report on the Association of American Universities Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct.

This would equivalate to more than 300 students on SNHU’s campus.

“I think our students are a little more willing to talk to at least Residence Life or Public Safety,” said Title IX Coordinator Becca Lawrence. “I think they have a great relationship with Public Safety, which isn’t always the case, so our students are a little more open to reporting, which is not always the case.”

An April 2018 survey distributed to SNHU students revealed that 51 percent (55 students) out of 107 participants, were aware of a sexual assault occurring on- or off- campus that had not been reported.

Each year, under the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (The Clery Act), all colleges and universities that receive federal financial aid are required to maintain and disclose information, data and statistics regarding crime on and near their campuses. This information is collected and released in a formal report at the start of October, covering the reports from the previous year.

Since 2014, when current traditional four-year seniors began their time at SNHU, 19 cases of sexual misconduct (categorized into Rape and Fondling in 2015-2016 and Sex Offenses: Forcible in 2014) have been reported to the university.

“I know so many people that have told me that they have been sexually assaulted, or raped or had unwanted sexual interactions that would never be willing to tell anyone or even be willing to tell their friends,” Emily McSweeney (‘21) said. “I don’t think [our statistics] are accurate.”

The Title IX reporting process on SNHU’s campus can be confusing to students, and many offices work to demystify the process in their work and advocacy.

Lawrence explained that cases often begin in Residence Life but can also begin with reports made to “a faculty [or staff] member, Athletics or directly to Public Safety.”

“From that point, I’m informed and Public Safety is informed that there is a potential Title IX issue, and so one of the officers – usually Amanda Peabody or Kevin Kelley – and I meet with whoever the initial reporter was,” explained Lawrence.

If a Title IX investigation results in a preponderance of evidence (51 percent likeliness that an incident did occur), Title IX cases then move to the Office of Community Standards and a hearing board.

“When it gets to me then I begin arrangements to make sure that the respondent and the complainant are notified of any charges,” said Jay Tifone, director of community standards. “If we’re having a Conduct Board hearing, I make sure that the names of the faculty and staff that are serving on that board are communicated to both parties. Both parties have the ability to object to the involvement of any of those faculty or staff members; if there’s any perception of bias, [they can] raise those concerns.”

Inconsistency exists between the offices. Excluding extreme circumstances involving minors, weapons or repeated offenders, Lawrence said reporters are free to drop cases whenever they decide to.

While Tifone agrees that students can stop sharing information at any point, he said, “If at the end of the day we have enough information to believe that another student may have violated the complainant… I think we would talk about that, but my feeling from the conduct side is that it might still be something we are interested in pursuing. Based on the amount of information that we have, I worry that if we didn’t act on that, that we would be opening ourselves up to some degree of negligence.”

Several resources exist on campus for survivors.

Jim Winn, director of Public Safety, emphasizes the importance of survivor autonomy. “If they come here to report a sexual assault, they’re in control of what they want to see happen… We’ll simply explain to them what their options are.”

The Wellness Center is exempt from the Title IX mandated reporter or Campus Security Authority regulations and will only share information when the patient provides written permission.

“We have the ability to see students on the same-day basis, both on health and counseling side[s],” Wellness Center Director Felix Pizzi said.

If a sexual assault case is recent, the Wellness Center will typically refer survivors to the Emergency Room for a rape kit and prophylaxis for Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI). Otherwise, on-campus Nurse Practitioners and the Nursing Staff can provide STI testing.

If an assault takes place outside of the Wellness Center’s office hours, there is an on-call counselor that Residence Life staff or Public Safety can connect students to.

Wellness Center staff are trained to respond to sexual assault trauma through national and regional conferences and other professional development opportunities.

“There is a lot of collaboration within our team,” Pizzi said. “If there’s a scenario that’s new, for example, to one staff member, generally the situation has been dealt with and experienced by another staff member who can provide consultation internally to make sure that we are covering all our bases and being responsive to the student’s needs.”

Brooke Gilmore, director of the Deborah L. Coffin Women’s Center shared the Women’s Center’s role as an on-campus resource. “As a mandatory reporter, I am unable to advise or support in any confidential capacity, but I can help students navigate the process of reporting and help to empower them to regain a sense of agency and control,” Gilmore said. “The Women’s Center is included in the list of on-campus resources that is given to students upon initiating a report. I would love for students to know that we are always here to help advocate for them when needed.”

The stigma that exists surrounding sexual assault, however, often prevents survivors from reporting their assault case or seeking counseling in the aftermath, according to several campus resources.

Pizzi thinks survivors may blame themselves for the attack, based on perceptions some people have.

Lawrence suggests the social implications survivors might consider when vocalizing the attack. “I think that a lot of students still feel like it’s high school, and if I report, then no one’s going to be my friend anymore, and I don’t think that’s the case most of the time.”

One survivor who reported their sexual assault case, but wishes to remain anonymous, stated that after reporting, she “had to deal with all the rumors and everything. That was probably the worst part of it all. Everybody believing him, and I looked like a liar.”

Sean Keegan (‘18) shared that he believes another barrier relates to individuals not speaking up. “Given our androcentric tendencies as a patriarchal society, unfortunately men are more likely to be listened to and have a public voice… So if [men] hear other men partaking in what’s often referred to as “locker room talk,” that’s perpetuating rape culture, [or] if you see something that doesn’t feel or look right, speak up. We can’t be afraid or ashamed to speak up.”

Another barrier to reporting, another survivor shared, focused on being unable to understand what had occurred. “I didn’t fully process what had happened for a long time after. I just, like, the next day, I felt sick to my stomach.” Ultimately she did not report her case. “By the time I finally realized, the kid had already transferred and, it had been so long I just felt like it wasn’t worth it, even though it’s still bad.”

McSweeney shared that she did not believe that current Title IX education allowed people to do this effectively, to know how to speak up, or even to be fully aware of the parameters of Title IX.

Gilmore agreed. “I would support a more robust, consistent, and continuous prevention education program that will engage all members of the campus community including students, faculty and staff,” she said.

The statistics provided in the Clery Act may be missing many cases, based on survey data and information provided by SNHU students.

To ensure the correct data is documented, McSweeney said, “Talk about it. Report things when you hear them. Use your voice.”

Rebecca LeBoeuf
Thank you guys for letting me rewrite my bio! Here it is: Rebecca LeBoeuf graduated summa cum laude in 2018 with a B.A. in communication and a minor in professional writing. She is a former editor in chief and held other positions on the Press including Penmen Abroad editor and copy editor. Her favorite part of journalism is listening to and sharing people's stories.