More than 90 percent of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report that they were assaulted.
Statistics like this one from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center are part of what encouraged John Gabrieli, the former co-chair of the Harvard Health Policy Program, to begin his work on Senate Resolve S. 2471.
Gabrieli began working with Massachusetts State Senator William Brownsberger roughly two years ago. The coalition between the Harvard Health Policy Group and the senator’s office wanted to look into additional precautions Massachusetts could pursue to combat sexual assault on college campuses.
According to Gabrieli, it is difficult to find viable ways of combatting sexual assault on campuses because there is insufficient or unreliable data on the rate of sexual assault. He believes this is partly because there is no anonymous, universal way to survey students. There is also no record of which policies are actually working.
“What really stood out to us was that people don’t actually know what works and what doesn’t,” Gabrieli said. “A lot of colleges have really tried hard to combat sexual assault, but no one really knows what is working.”
Gabrieli said that there is a large under-reporting problem when it comes to sexual assault on campuses. Sometimes, according to Gabrieli, problems or situations that arise get brushed under the rug and students’ stories are not always heard.
Gabrieli and the Harvard Health Policy Group looked at recommendations from the White House Task Force on Sexual Assault, spoke with different experts on the subject, and interviewed students, faculty members, and administrators at several universities across Massachusetts. The group proposed a bill to Brownsberger’s office that would require colleges in Massachusetts to administer a sexual assault climate survey.
Students on college campuses in Massachusetts would be surveyed anonymously at the end of the academic year and asked about the prevalence and perception of sexual assault on their campus. Questions would ask respondents about both their experience with sexual assault and their peers’ experiences.
“What really stood out to us was that people don’t actually know what works and what doesn’t. A lot of colleges have really tried hard to combat sexual assault, but no one really knows what is working.”
—John Gabrieli, the former co-chair of the Harvard Health Policy Program
According to Gabrieli, several different groups, including the Rape, Assault and Incest National Network (RAINN) and President Barack Obama’s administration, have looked into a climate survey in the past. If passed, Massachusetts would be the first state to put a universal sexual climate survey into action.
The bill passed the State Senate this past July. The House, however, closed session before the bill could be picked up. Proponents are currently working to convince House members to take up the bill in informal session.
This fall, supporters, including Gabrieli, will be circulating a petition across campuses in Massachusetts, contacting legislators, and attempting to get the word out about S. 2471.
Boston College does not currently administer an anonymous sexual assault climate survey to the entire student body. Other universities in the area, including Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Northeastern have released similar anonymous surveys in the past.
Theology professor John McDargh, who has been at the University for 37 years, said in the spring that BC’s top administration opts out of having students participate in a nationwide survey about sexual health. McDargh said that the administration would like to continue to claim “plausible deniability” when it comes to students conducting in sexual acts or cases of sexual assault on campus.
Harvard’s survey, which was originally released in 2015, asked students about the prevalence of sexual assault, characteristics of perpetrators, and what students know about resources and the climate on campus. The survey asked students about topics including harassment, the absence of affirmative consent when it comes to penetration or sexual touching, and intimate partner violence.
The BC Women’s Center, however, works with students to prevent sexual assault on campus and step in as bystanders if they see a situation arising.
Now, incoming freshmen are required to take a survey asking about their attitudes surrounding the issue of sexual assault, but the survey does not provide the Women’s Center with data on the prevalence of sexual assault on campus.
The Women’s Center works with Everfi, a program that administers Haven, a freshmen program on bystander intervention. The Center consults the company to make sure the questions about bystander intervention are salient, resident, and relevant, Rachel DiBella, assistant director of the Women’s Center, said.
Freshmen are also required to participate in Stand Up BC, a program that educates students on how to speak up if they see a potential case of sexual assault occurring. A few weeks after Stand Up BC, students are required to fill out another survey, again asking about their willingness to step into a potentially dangerous situation.
“The most important thing to us is that we are really and genuinely engaging with students and not making them feel talked at. We want this to feel like a movement that we are cultivating together with everyone versus coming in and making people go through a presentation.”
—Rachel DiBella, assistant director of the Women’s Center
Often, the Women’s Center finds that students are less willing to speak up about a case of sexual assault after spending extended periods of time on campus, DiBella said.
“We are always tailoring our programs based on the information we receive from students,” DiBella said.
In an effort to continue education on bystander intervention into students’ later college years, the Women’s Center is rolling out a new program called Speak Up BC. The program focuses on re-educating the leaders of student groups, athletes, and upperclassmen on what to do if they see an assault taking place.
This year, DiBella and the Women’s Center are focusing on intimate partner, or dating violence and the issue of exploitation.
“We want students to know what their rights are,” DiBella said. “We want them to see how consent also flows into issues of photos and reporting and social media.”
DiBella thinks that any new form of collecting data, like S. 2471, is beneficial. She also believes that BC is cutting-edge when it comes to preventing sexual assault on campus.
“The most important thing to us is that we are really and genuinely engaging with students and not making them feel talked at,” DiBella said. “We want this to feel like a movement that we are cultivating together with everyone versus coming in and making people go through a presentation.”
Featured Image Courtesy of Hsin Ju HSU / Creative Commons