College reports stats on sexual assault

The American College Health Association (ACHA) recently released the results of a survey that students were eligible to take last spring. The results of this survey  indicate a higher prevalence of rape and sexual assault at the College than at peer institutions and a range of colleges and universities across the nation. The College, both through student-led initiatives and administrative bodies, is working to address and reduce the prevalence of sexual assault on campus.

College statistics on sexual assault

Survey results for the College reported that within the last 12 months 19.2 percent of females and 3.8 percent of males experienced sexual touching without consent; 9.9 percent of females and 1.0 percent of males experienced attempted sexual penetration without consent and 4.4 percent of females and 0.3 percent of males experienced sexual penetration without consent. Out of the 2106 students enrolled at the College, 832 students responded to the survey.

These numbers are comparable to, but higher than, the ACHA statistics for residential undergraduate liberal arts institutions. In this pool of data, 15.2 percent of females and 3.5 percent of males experienced sexual touching without consent; 5.9 percent of females and 1.2 percent of males experienced an attempt at sexual penetration without consent; and 3.2 percent of females and 0.5 percent of males experienced sexual penetration without consent.

The ACHA statistics on sexual assault are much higher than the national average based on the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) 2007 survey, which includes non-residential institutions and large public universities. In that survey, 7.4 percent of females and 3.1 percent of men experienced sexual touching without consent; 3.2 percent of females and 0.8 percent of men experienced an attempt at sexual penetration without consent; and 1.9 percent of females and 0.6 percent of males experienced sexual penetration without consent.

“The fact that sexual assaults affect so many students at Williams – hundreds each year – is completely unacceptable,” President Falk wrote in an all-campus email on Feb. 9. “Rape and other forms of sexual assault are personal violations that are often life-changing, and we must do everything in our power to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, them here.”

“It is a fair question to ask why the Williams numbers are somewhat worse than the average for the group of similar schools,” Dean Bolton said. “And I don’t know the answer to that question. It could be something statistical, like that most schools are doing worse than the average, but there is a subgroup that does so well that it pulls the average down, or it could be that the problem here is significantly worse than that at many similar schools.

“To me,” Bolton continued, “the most important thing is the numbers and the impact – 4.4 percent of women experiencing sexual penetration without their consent corresponds to 44 women raped on campus each year. And three men are raped on campus each year according to these statistics. These numbers represent a terrible and urgent problem, and one that we are working to address in every way we can think of.”

Student-led initiatives

The Rape and Sexual Assault Network (RASAN) is the primary student-led support organization at the College focused on providing sexual assault-related services. RASAN leadership received notification of these statistics in January and has worked with the administration since then to raise awareness about the issue.

The numbers released by the ACHA and the DOJ were of great concern to RASAN: “We are much higher than the national average and that was really disconcerting to us,” said Marissa Thiel ’13, RASAN co-coordinator. “It was only when we got the information about peer institutions that we had a better sense of where we fell, but Williams is still reporting numbers much higher than our peer institutions.”

RASAN is attempting to investigate what elements of the College culture could be contributing to these statistics, expanding on its mission as a student-run support system. The leadership rejects claims that alcohol substantially impacts assaults at the College.

“Regardless of whether or not there is alcohol on campus,” Thiel said, “assaults occur.”

With approximately 80 students on campus trained in sexual assault support, the organization runs a 24/7 confidential hotline for students to call with concerns. A member of the hotline will return a student call within 15 minutes; if a student specifically requests to talk to a male, a response will be guaranteed within one hour.

“Ideally, RASAN’s role would only be a supportive one,” Abbi Davies ’13, RASAN co-coordinator said. “We would only be doing support for survivors and friends of survivors and creating places for conversation about assault.”

“We’ve taken on more things in the past year given that the College is trying to make sexual assault a focus, and other groups don’t yet exist to address that,” Thiel added.

As a result of this increased focus on sexual assault advocacy, RASAN is expanding its array of services. Bystander training has been a critical focus of the organization over the past year. Bystander training is designed to educate members of the College community about different responses to potential developing instances of sexual assault; by empowering community members to speak out, the training is supposed to curb the incidence of assault.

With the goal of “moving the Williams community towards a community-based model of sexual assault prevention, as opposed to a victim-blaming society,” according to Thiel. RASAN has conducted 15 bystander training sessions, each lasting one-and-a-half hours and facilitated by qualified RASAN speakers. Between 150 to 200 individuals at the College have been trained, including students and staff.

Beginning last fall, the administration partnered with RASAN and College Council (CC) to require that all Baxter Fellows and hosts and servers for parties undergo bystander training.

Existing administrative support

The administration has already established working task forces dedicated to addressing sexual assault at the College.

While RASAN serves as the student support-oriented organization for sexual assault services, Sexual Assault Survivor Services (SASS) is a complementary service provided by the Health Center. RASAN maintains contact with SASS on a near-weekly basis, according to Davies and Thiel.

The Sexual Assault Task Force, which was founded in Nov. 2010, works to highlight “issues of education and awareness, training for staff who work with students, reporting investigative and sanctioning processes and support for survivors,” according to Dean Bolton.

In Nov. 2011, the Task Force on Campus Awareness of Sexual Assault was created as an additional forum for discussion focused on increasing awareness of sexual assault at the College. This task force involves members of 16 different campus groups and committees, including the Junior Advisor Advisory Board, RASAN, CC, the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, Peer Health, the Women of Color Resource Center, the Women of Color Coalition, the Queer Student Union (QSU), the Women’s Center, the Committee on Undergraduate Life, SASS and the Committee on Diversity and Community. By reaching out to these different groups, the task force is situated to reflect on and address the needs of different components of the College community.

The Sexual Harassment Misconduct Committee was also formed as an administrative committee; the only students who serve on the committee are Thiel and Davies.

“Awareness is a crucial branch of prevention strategy,” Bolton said. “To move forward as we must, we need to be fully aware of the prevalence and impact of sexual assault at the College, and also be aware of ways that individuals can intervene effectively and safely.”

Next steps

Both student and administrative groups have recently surfaced in response to increased focus on sexual assault.

As a result of a meeting of the Leadership Council, a group founded last semester in order to coordinate efforts between major organizations at the College, and conversations with Thiel, Matthew Piltch ’12 has founded a new group, Men For Consent (MFC).

MFC met for the first time on Monday evening out of “recognition of the need for a male voice for [issues of sexual assault] on campus,” Piltch said. The group’s mission is not yet fully defined, but Piltch hopes it will serve as an advocacy and education group exclusively for males against sexual assault.

“Most of the perpetrators of sexual assault are men, and most men are uncomfortable discussing sexual assault with women in part as a result,” Piltch said.

“Having men provide advocacy makes the conversation different,” he added. “It makes the conversation more accessible, and I think men are more likely to engage with it when they aren’t uncomfortable.” MFC is currently considering implementing a variety of projects, including tabling, postering campaigns and bringing speakers to campus that will target a male audience.

According to Thiel and Davies, RASAN hopes to coordinate with MFC, although the organizations are designed to serve very different functions.

This spring, the annual Take Back the Night event, sponsored by RASAN, is being expanded into a week-long series of performances, open-mics and workshops regarding sexual assault “in hopes of reaching as many different groups as possible and getting as many people as possible talking about these issues,” Davies said.

RASAN also plans to work with the QSU in advance of their spring all-campus party in order to train more active bystanders.

RASAN also hopes to continue integrating outside professionals into the College’s discussion of rape and sexual assault. For the first time, the College brought in Meg Bossong ’05 from the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center to consult during JA training last June.

“The administration and the College need to take a bigger role in bringing external sources in for bystander training,” Thiel said. “Students should not be training staff. In future years, we’d like the administration to be providing those tools.”

Davies added that RASAN is very appreciative of the administration’s current initiative, but more can be done to address concerns.

“It’s a big issue and it’s not going to be changed overnight,” she said. “But just the fact that people are having these conversations means we are headed in the right direction.”