Although school is out for summer vacation, campuses and college students remain the focus of intense scrutiny across the country. Last weekend’s shootings at Seattle Pacific University by a 26-year-old gunman, who was obsessed with school shootings, and the Memorial Day weekend murders of six University of California at Santa Barbara students by a 22-year-old former Santa Barbara City College student have reignited controversy over some of society’s most hotly debated social issues: security, gun control, the shortcomings of the mental health system and the prevalence of violence against women.
Concerns associated with these issues reach beyond the confines of America’s college communities, yet recent events and the release of some sobering statistics, particularly with regard to sexual assaults at American colleges and universities (according to the Obama administration, one in five women are victims during their college years), have led to revelations and questions about campus safety.
In response to what many call an epidemic of sexual violence on campuses, Jewish Women International has created Safe Smart Dating, one of the first programs in the nation to use a coeducational model to work with members of sororities and fraternities to prevent dating abuse and sexual assault on campuses.
“What makes this program groundbreaking is that it engages men in the conversation,” said Deborah Rosenbloom, JWI vice president of programs and new initiatives. “We used to think sexual assault and dating violence were women’s issues. Well, they’re not. They are community issues.”
So far, the Safe Smart Dating program has been piloted with Sigma Delta Tau sorority chapters and Zeta Beta Tau fraternity chapters at the University of Pennsylvania, George Washington University and Purdue University. Through coeducational lectures and discussions and the use of scenarios, news stories, live text surveys and videos, the program aims to help students in sororities and fraternities define and identify dating abuse and sexual assault and to build skills to be active bystanders, something that Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, said is a proven deterrent.
“We now know that putting a group of men in a room and telling them not to rape doesn’t work,” said Kiss. “Most men don’t rape, and when they hear that, they’re going to say, ‘I would never do that.’ Telling women not to be a victim doesn’t really work either. If she does everything she can not to be a victim and still gets raped, she will think it is her fault.
“What does seem to work,” continued Kiss, “are bystander interventions, where we teach men techniques to intervene and prevent a rape. It’s hard to be that guy who tells his fraternity brother not to take that drunk girl upstairs. But he can be taught to cause a commotion of some kind that stops it from happening. We can engage women, teaching them how to understand behavior and empower their friends to come forth.”
Said Rosenbloom: “There is a lot of confusion about consent, and we need to tell the guys again and again that if a person is incapacitated, it is impossible for him or her to consent. Greek life is ripe for heavy partying and sexual assault, and there is so much pressure not to report. We have to change that.”
“Schools with Division I sports and Greek life have different cultures than other campuses,” added Kiss. “Sometimes, there are behaviors on these campuses that have been institutionalized, and sometimes those behaviors are not good.”
Kiss noted that on some campuses, fraternities have reputations for being “rape factories.” Her response to those who feel the characterization is unfair? “Step up and be leaders.”
Serena Shapero, 24, a recent Goucher College graduate who works as a health educator and social media strategist for Jewish Community Services, said that the nature of college life has evolved to blur traditional social boundaries.
“People in fraternities and sororities do influence one another, and there is a lot of pressure and a huge emphasis on partying and sex,” explained Shapero. “Dating in college is different now because people are living so close to one another. Instead of calling and saying, ‘How are you?’ it’s common for a student to text another student and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing? I’m near your dorm. Let me swing by.’ There are now coed rooms and showers.”
“The boundaries are less clear,” said Howard Reznick, senior manager of prevention education for JCS. He noted that perpetrators are often strategic about using alcohol to make potential victims more vulnerable. “Perpetrators are cognizant that getting a girl drunk while he stays sober is the way to go. He might think, ‘I want to score tonight, and I’m going to do what it takes. I’m going to go for a woman who’s intoxicated.’”
“It’s easier for a perpetrator to approach a girl who’s drunk,” she said. “If they stumble back to the dorm together and go into the room together, boundaries get really fuzzy. Dorm rooms are so small. There’s just a bed, a dresser and a desk usually, so there isn’t really anywhere to go except to the bed. For a person who may be intoxicated, when she’s in her own space, she may loosen up a bit more and think the other person has good intentions.”
Shapero pointed out that in addition to alcohol, college students may be using other substances.
“A lot of times, people don’t even know what they’re taking,” she said. “At brunch [after a night of partying], it’s always, ‘Oh, you did this funny thing last night,’ or, ‘You hooked up with so and so last night.’ It’s funny until it’s not, like if you don’t remember hooking up with anybody.”
Added Reznick: “Nowadays, everyone is holding a camera [their cell phones] at all times,” creating the added worry that activities may have been recorded and posted online for friends and friends of friends to see. It’s worth noting that a 2000 Department of Justice study found that in 90 percent of cases, victims know their attackers and fewer than five percent of sexual assaults are reported.
Most campus safety advocates believe that prevention should begin long before the college years. “We need to talk to kids about healthy relationships and what is sexual violence,” said Kiss.
At JCS, Jewish communal professionals offer programs for preventing risky behaviors for students as young as preschool age.
“We go into schools all over Maryland, providing kids and young adults with the information they need to make informed decisions that work for them,” said Shapero. JCS programs are designed to promote honest communication about sex, sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse and sexual violence.
According to Reznick, students don’t necessarily share the same definitions when it comes to sexual acts. “The term ‘hooking up’ means something different to each person. Some kids think it means kissing or necking; other kids think it is more advanced — sexual intercourse,” he said.
“Our most popular programs for college-age people are our HIV/AIDS program and our substance-abuse program,” said Shapero. “We bring in victims of sexual assault and recovering addicts who share their experiences. We also provide lots of information. [In the case of sexual-assault programs] we give them the nitty-gritty about how AIDS is contracted. Only one in three adults is protecting himself or herself against HIV. There needs to be a lot more education about this.”