October 5, 2015

O’TOOLE | Sexual Assault is Serious

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Eighteen percent of female students surveyed in the AAU Campus Climate Survey said that they experienced nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or incapacitation since arriving at Cornell.  Thirteen percent of female students said that they experienced nonconsensual sexual contact by the absence of affirmative consent.

Yet, victims report these incidents to organizations or campus officials at very low rates.

Only 26.8 percent of victims of penetrative acts by physical force reported it; only 16.2 percent of victims of penetrative acts involving incapacitation reported it; and only 9.2 percent of victims of forceful sexual touching reported it.

Why don’t victims report these acts of sexual assault?  Students overwhelmingly stated that they did not report these instances because they did not think they were serious enough.

Further, students do not feel like they know what to do if they or their friends experience sexual assault or sexual harassment.  Just 28.5 percent of students know where to find help at Cornell if they or a friend are sexually assaulted or harassed.

I see three major takeaways from the AAU Survey.  We need to focus on prevention, we need a culture shift at Cornell and we need to provide information more clearly and broadly.

First, we need to focus on prevention.

I have been impressed with the innovative sexual violence prevention initiatives that I’ve seen students come up with and enact during my time at Cornell, but we still need to do more. We need more ideas for new initiatives to reach broader constituencies across campus.  We need to harness the energy of students to support these initiatives and engage with them.

We need more education for students to understand what is sexual assault and harassment.  There is not a common understanding of what these terms mean and what they look like in real life.

Students come from a variety of countries, cultures and types of secondary schools.  Many students have not had sex education and have never talked about these issues before they move onto North Campus freshman year. We can’t be satisfied that we’ve taught students about these issues once they’ve seen one performance during Orientation or sat through one presentation on sexual assault.  We need to work formal and informal sexual violence prevention education into students’ four years on campus — through programming, through living-learning communities and through the curriculum.

Second, we need a culture shift at Cornell.

Sexual assault and harassment is serious.  No means no, and the absence of no does not mean yes.  If someone violates this principle, it is a serious issue.

Until sexual assault and harassment is taken seriously, students will continue to be victimized at these alarmingly high levels.

“Taking it seriously” does not necessarily mean that a victim has to go to the police, or file a complaint through the University or go through any process that he or she doesn’t want to go through.  A victim should have control over his or her decision to go through a formal process following an instance of sexual assault or harassment, especially given the loss of control that occurs when a person is sexually victimized.

But, it is unacceptable to have the attitude that “this kind of thing happens all the time” and that it’s thus not worth someone’s time to take an incident of sexual assault or harassment seriously.  This kind of thing will continue to happen all the time unless all of us — students, faculty and staff — appreciate that these incidents are as serious as they are.

“Taking it seriously” means questioning the culture of binge drinking at Cornell and on college campuses across the nation, and exploring ways to make students’ social lives safer and healthier.  It means talking about sexual assault and harassment, exploring the uncomfortable questions that arise around this topic and helping our community come to a common understanding of what is and what is not acceptable behavior.

Third, we need to provide information more clearly and broadly.

Students should know where they can turn if they or a friend are victims of sexual assault or harassment.

Policy 6.4 — the policy that governs sexual assault and harassment — is currently undergoing changes to explain processes more clearly and to streamline them to be more efficient and effective in dealing with reported instances of sexual assault and harassment.

I think these changes to Policy 6.4 are necessary and overdue.  In particular, Policy 6.4 should provide clearer information to students about how Cornell defines sexual assault and harassment, victims’ options once they’ve experienced instances of sexual assault and harassment, and the rights of the accused throughout formal processes.  The changes need to happen quickly but also in a deliberate and informed manner.  Changes should be made with input from students, faculty and staff to fully reflect the variety of issues and concerns that are inherent to this complicated issue.

In addition, we should do a better job of informing students about the excellent resources that Cornell does have to help victims of sexual assault and harassment.

The SHARE (Sexual Harassment and Assault — Response and Education) website — share.cornell.edu — is the best source for information about what to do if you or a friend experiences sexual assault or harassment.

Confidential support is available through Gannett, the Cornell Victim Advocate, the director of the Women’s Resource Center, the director of the LGBT Resource Center, the Ithaca Advocacy Center’s 24/7 hotline, Cornell United Religious Work Chaplains and the University Ombudsman.

Other resources for help and advice include: CUPD, resident advisors or residential housing directors, the Office of Workforce Policy and Labor Relations, the Office of the Judicial Administrator, the Title IX Coordinator and the Program Coordinator for Diversity and Inclusion Strategies.

Sexual assault and harassment is a serious and difficult issue.  Cornell must continue to work diligently and constantly to keep students safe and to provide supportive environments for them to pursue an exceptional education.  Administrators and the Board of Trustees cannot and should not solve these issues on their own — we need student input, student ideas and students to take this issue seriously in order to improve our campus climate.