Sexual assault poses threat to campus life

The relatively low number of reported sexual assaults at Williams, combined with a generally false sense of security, has long convinced many students that sexual assault is not a serious problem on this campus. But administrators and students involved in sexual assault counseling caution that sexual assault on this campus may be more widespread and dangerous than most of the student body suspects.

Sexual assault is a national problem: the U.S. Justice Department estimates that somewhere in America a woman is raped every two minutes, but many Williams students feel that sexual assault has yet to invade the purple bubble. “There’s an attitude that bad things don’t happen in Williamstown,” Director of Security Jean Thorndike said. “That’s false.”

The biggest factor contributing to this false sense of security is the general underreporting of crimes of sexual assault. Because survivors are often unwilling to file official reports with the college, it is difficult for administrators to get an accurate sense of the frequency.

According to Thorndike, there has not yet been a reported case of sexual assault in the 1998-1999 academic year, but she and others warn against unfounded optimism. “It’s an underreported crime,” Thorndike noted. “Just because we haven’t had any reports this academic year doesn’t mean sexual assault is not occurring.”

Health Educator Donna Denelli-Hess, a sexual assault counselor and member of the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) agreed that this is one area where statistics can be severely misleading. “Officially, very few are reported,” she noted. “But sexual assault happens on the Williams campus just like on other campuses.”

“I can say that most years,” Denelli-Hess added, “I probably talk to 10 women who have been assaulted, none of whom may make an official report.”

Erin Morrissette ’00 and Rebecca Barson ’99, the co-coordinators of the Rape and Sexual Assault Network, a student-run organization that manages a hotline for sexual assault survivors, agreed that it is virtually impossible to gauge how often sexual assault is really occurring at Williams. “It happens so much more than the administration is told, than we’re told,” Morrissette said.

A Williams student who feels she or he has been sexually assaulted can pursue a complaint either through the College, by way of the Dean’s Office, or through the Williamstown Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office. But often survivors have no idea where to begin, or whether they even have grounds for a complaint.

“People aren’t sure if something is just a bad hook-up,” Morrissette explained. “They often don’t want to classify it as a rape.”

“There’s a sense of guilt,” Assistant Dean Wanda Lee, who is in charge of Dean’s Office investigations of sexual assault, added. “They have to determine, was it their fault? And will people believe me? That makes it difficult to come forward.”

If a survivor decides that she or he wants to file a complaint, or just wants someone to talk to about the incident, there are several sources of support on the Williams campus.

One of these is the Rape and Sexual Assault Network, coordinated by Barson and Morrissette. Anyone can call the 24-hour hotline and receive informal counseling from peers trained in dealing with sexual assault. All conversations are kept entirely confidential.

Sexual assault survivors can also contact Denelli-Hess, a Health Educator and long-time sexual assault counselor. After providing emotional support, Denelli-Hess talks to the survivor about filing an official report. “I do encourage them to file a report, but it’s their choice—entirely their choice,” Denelli-Hess noted.

The next step for a survivor may be to file an official complaint with the Security Department or the Dean’s Office. Many students, however, are reluctant to make an official report.

“I think there are a lot of reasons [people fail to report],” Thorndike said. “The primary reason is, they’re embarrassed. They hold themselves responsible for stupid decisions.”

“Also, because of the nature of the investigation, they may have to tell their story two or three times. That can be hard,” she added. “And students don’t want to get other students in trouble.”

Despite these concerns, students do occasionally go on to file official reports with Security. In these cases, the department will immediately refer the survivor to the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), a group of trained Williams faculty members and administrators on 24-hour call. “We serve as support people and liaisons for survivors to help them through the administrative maze,” said Lee, who served as the chair of SART for two years.

SART members will also inform the survivor about options for pursuing a legal complaint through the Williamstown Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office. Although the Security Department is required by law to provide basic information (such as date, time and general location—names are kept confidential) to the WPD any time it hears of a sexual assault, the survivor’s permission is required for the Police Department to launch an investigation.

If the survivor agrees to involve the police, the Dean’s office turns over the investigation and assists the Police Department and the District Attorney. If, however, the survivor wishes to keep the matter within the College, the Dean’s Office and the Security Department run their own investigation independent of the police.

“The [College] investigation involves talking to the survivor, talking to witnesses, the person who has been accused, gathering any supporting evidence for either side,” Thorndike explained. “Then we make a determination based on the evidence that has been gathered.”

“This information,” Lee added, “is sent forward to the Dean of the College with recommendations from the investigators about possible sanctions.” The Dean then decides what kind of punishment is appropriate.

“I feel strongly that the Dean’s Office protocol is very consistent and fair,” Lee said.

The fundamental limit of the College policy, however, is the relative infrequency of reports of sexual assault. “The College is good at handling the sexual assaults they know about,” Barson noted, “but it’s hard to do anything about the sexual assaults they don’t know about.”

Because of this limitation the College has also focused its attention on the prevention of sexual assault. One program in this area, which Thorndike initiated last year, is Rape Aggression Defense (RAD). “The R.A.D. objective is to develop and enhance the options of self-defense, so they may become viable considerations to the woman who is attacked,” the RAD information brochure states.

This six-week, 18-hour course is offered free by the Security Department to any interested Williams students. “The program stresses awareness and prevention—not getting yourself into the situation in the first place,” Thorndike explained.

The Rape and Sexual Assault Network also coordinates a variety of prevention programs. These range from displaying posters around campus to leading entry talks during First Days. “The Entry talks are some of the most important things we do,” Morrissette said.

“The focus is on prevention,” Barson emphasized, “how you can take care of yourself and your friends.”

Despite the College’s aggressive policy of dealing with complaints and the variety of prevention-oriented programs, however, informed administrators and students feel that the problem of sexual assault is still serious and not likely to diminish in the near future.

“That’s what’s really sad,” Lee said. “It’s not something you can mandate in a policy, because each individual makes a choice about how to act whenever they are in an intimate situation.”

Barson and Morrissette noted another factor fundamentally related to sexual assault at Williams: alcohol. “Almost all sexual assault occurs with alcohol,” Barson said. “It’s a huge factor.”

“As a J.A.,” Morrissette added, “I’ve seen people getting so drunk they really can’t control their actions. They don’t see [sexual assault] as a consequence.”

Thorndike agreed that drinking has played a major role in the cases that have come through the Security Department. “Typically the cases we are involved with are an acquaintance/date rape scenario, and typically, alcohol is involved.”

Denelli-Hess explained the implications on the future of sexual assault at Williams. “As long as there is as much alcohol use on this campus as there is now, sexual assault is going to occur because people don’t make good decisions. The whole level of vulnerability really scares me.”

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