Student classes to fight college rape at a critical time

The case of former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, who walked out of jail Friday after serving three months for the sexual assault of an unconscious college co-ed, arguably will not be the last of its kind.

This time of year on college campuses — the start of fall semester — appears critical.  It is commonly known among administrators as the “the Red Zone,”  referring to the time when incoming freshmen are most susceptible to sexual assault.

Alcohol is often a factor in sexual assaults and a number of universities, including Stanford, have issued bans or limits on alcohol. 

But cracking down on booze does not seem to be enough according those who deal with the issue. “Binge drinking on college campuses has been reduced in the last few years and we haven’t seen that same reduction in college sexual assault,” said Stephanie Gordon, Vice President for Professional Development at the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education Association.

At the University of Colorado in Boulder (CU), officials say they are the only college in the country to mandate bystander intervention training for all new freshmen. Students learn to recognize a wide range of scenarios, not necessarily just an assault in progress, where they may be able to help.

Tactics discussed fall under the categories of direct help, creating a distraction or stealth action. One of the course’s instructors, Julie Volckens, associate director for assessment and education, described their approach:  “If I don’t feel sex assault is maybe relevant to me, I’m not going to assault anyone, I’m probably not going to be assaulted, the skills are still relevant for me and I can see how I can use them in different contexts.”

CU’s courses, both the community equity class for addressing sexual misconduct and the bystander class, have been around for awhile, but recently received new attention.

CU student Austin Wilkerson made headlines earlier this month after receiving what was perceived as another light sentence for pretending to help an intoxicated student, but then sexually assaulting her.  He received jail and work-school release, instead of prison.  

“We believe we can interrupt many situations before they turn into sex assaults or before they turn into problems, reduce harm around someone who’s had too much to drink who’s leaving the party and probably shouldn’t go by themselves,” Volckens said of the training. “The Turner case is an example — he was stopped and held for police by two bicyclists who were passing by at the time.

CU Boulder conducted a Sexual Misconduct Survey of more than 13,000 students last year. It found over the calendar year, 71 percent of sexual assaults happen during the fall semester, 67-percent of them on first-year students.  The rate of assaults declined from the first to fourth year (and beyond).

Katharina Booth, Chief of the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violent Unit at the Boulder County District Attorney’s office, tells Fox News, “What I see and what we look at all the time, is upper classmen and so forth, using alcohol as that tool, that weapon to perpetuate against that young naive, entering freshman and who is just kind of coming out in the world.” 

The issue is an eye opener for CU freshman Johanna Tran, who heard about the Wilkerson case. “I think it’s actually really scary… you would hope that your campus is like a safe place to be at but you’re not really safe so it’s kind of sad.”  She told Fox News she finds safety in numbers and makes a point of surrounding herself with men she knows very well.

The problem is also believed to be vastly under-reported nationwide, in part because of stereotypes.  “I think victims, survivors, often think that ‘I shouldn’t have got so drunk’, everybody else is blaming them already, so that helps stifle their desire or potential to report in the first place,” said Booth.  

The victim impact in the Wilkerson case even underlined the issue. Here is an excerpt:  “Even my own mother was victim blaming. She told me that if I hadn’t been drunk, this wouldn’t have happened. Yet, it was excusable for him to rape me because he was drunk. After all I’ve endured emotionally, physically, psychologically and financially, the burden of the blame still crashes down on my shoulders.”

Booth and Gordon both stress the importance of parents getting through to their kids early on.  “Actually if we start talking about it at the college age it’s a little too late to make that impact, we really want students to be talking about it from the time that they understand what sex is and how to manage responsible sexual behavior,” Gordon said.

Alicia Acuna joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 1997 and currently serves as a general assignment reporter based in the network’s Denver bureau.



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