College deepens efforts to prevent sexual assault on campus

According to a campus-wide e-mail sent out by Dean Bolton on Feb. 22, 2013, 13 sexual assaults were reported during the 2011-12 academic year. Bolton’s email about sexual assaults during the 2012-13 academic year is forthcoming.

“The 13 reports we received in 2011-12 likely represent only a small fraction of the sexual assaults that took place at [the College] that year,” the e-mail read. “Our anonymous survey data collected in spring 2011 indicate a total of 45-50 acts of penetration without consent and many more sexual assaults of other kinds occur here each year. These numbers are, of course, very profoundly troubling. We must continue do all we can to prevent assaults, to support students who experience assault, and to hold accountable those who commit these crimes.”

The Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Committee (SAPA) was formed two years ago to address these issues. “SAPA was pulled together because there were 17 different groups on campus working on sexual assault prevention and awareness,” Bolton said. “We wanted those groups to coordinate on their work.” SAPA’s chief responsibilities are the support services for survivors, the adjustment of the reporting and adjudication process and campaigns to promote awareness and prevention. The committee’s programming includes the “Speak About It” discussion during first-year orientation and bystander training. Most recently, SAPA conducted entry check-ins, as a follow up to Speak About It programming during First Days.

SAPA is composed of student representatives from the Rape and Sexual Assault Network (RASAN), Men for Consent, the Queer Student Union (QSU) and the JA Advisory Board (JAAB). Health Educator Donna Denelli-Hess, Assistant Director of Gender, Sexuality and Activism Justin Adkins and Director of Multicultural Outreach Beverly Williams also sit on the committee.

Reporting Sexual Assault

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, or Clery Act, is a law passed in 1990 in response to the rape and murder of Lehigh first-year Jeanne Clery. The Clery Act requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep statistics on crime that occurs on campus and regularly report those numbers to the U.S. Department of Education.

The College regularly provides those numbers to the government. When a student reports a sexual assault, the student has the option of reporting the assault for disciplinary action at the College, reporting the assault to the police or choosing not to pursue action against the perpetrator at all. Annually, Dean Bolton sends an all-campus e-mail in January or February addressing incidents of sexual assaults that occurred during the previous academic year, as well as how many students chose to pursue disciplinary action or report to the police.

“One of the things that we talked about in SAPA when we created it a couple of years ago was to talk about when we are going to do reporting,” Bolton said. Many ideas were discussed, including the idea of reporting a sexual assault to the student body the day after it is reported to the administration.

“The purpose of the reporting is to serve the students,” Bolton said. “Students on SAPA expressed concerns that it’s a tiny community, and it’s hard to imagine people not trying to figure out who it is and what happened, both from the point of view of the perpetrator and the person who experienced the assault. The other thing SAPA worried about was the fact that formally reported assaults that go through adjudication are still relatively rare, and they were worried that if a month went by without a formally reported assault, the misunderstanding that sexual assault is not a big problem on this campus would be reinforced.”

Controversial Issues

Conversations about sexual assault can be controversial and divisive, particularly when those conversations address the characteristics of the average perpetrator, the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault or the frequency of false reporting.

“There are certain things that we know empirically about assaulters,” Denelli-Hess said. “On college campuses, it’s mostly men assaulting women. Statistically, those men have assaulted more than one woman in the time they’ve been on a college campus. We also know they target particular women and encourage them to get drunk. Are those easy characteristics to convince our student population of? It’s not an easy sell. People don’t want to believe that their peers are that calculated. I wish it wasn’t so. It’s not a lot of men – it’s a few men who are assaulting over and over again. And you know why they are? Because they get away with it.”

The relationship between alcohol and sexual assault is a troubled one. Denelli-Hess explained that although alcohol does not cause sexual assault, and there would still be assaults even if no one drank, it can still be a factor. It gives assaulters more confidence, and it makes those who are targets of assault less likely to make good decisions. “It makes survivors feel very guilty if they’ve been drinking and then are assaulted,” Denelli-Hess said. “It’s hard to make them believe that it wasn’t their fault. It doesn’t matter what they drank or how much they drank.”

Another contentious issue is that of false reporting – the idea that it is common for women to falsely accuse men of sexual assault. “People who perpetuate this myth show a lack of understanding about the reality of sexual assault, especially on college campuses and, even more so, at Williams,” Callie Kiernan ’14, a member of SAPA and JAAB, said.

“People think that they are protecting their ‘falsely accused male friends’ when in fact the rate of false reporting is the same as for any other violent crime – 0.2 to 7 percent,” Natalie Plasencia ’14, RASAN co-coordinator and member of SAPA, said. “That’s very destructive to people who are survivors of sexual assault.” According to Plasencia, RASAN is creating a panel that will address the infrequency of false reporting and the dangers of that conversation.

Looking forward

Recently, the College hired Meg Bossong ’05 to fill the newly created position of director of sexual assault prevention and response. Bossong will start work at the College in April.

“The director will be responsible for leading the College’s work on sexual violence prevention, awareness and response,” Bolton said. “This includes overseeing compliance with the requirements of the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination [SaVE] Act and Title IX, and working closely with students, staff and faculty.”

“One of the most exciting things, for me, about this position is that Williams has made a commitment to addressing sexual violence as a whole community,” Bossong said. “I think the College is in a particular moment where it’s going to possible to expand on that work in creative ways. I’m looking forward to bringing my own community organizing experience into conversation with folks on campus.”

Although SAPA has in mind the long-term goal of reducing sexual assault, much of their day-to-day work simply focuses on resources for survivors.

“I’m passionate about the topic,” Denelli-Hess said. “I’ve been working as a sexual assault advisor for 24 years, and I still remain passionate about it. No one who is assaulted should have to walk alone in that journey of recovery and healing, and I’m really happy to be part of that if I can be. That’s what keeps me going.”