Talking sexual assault: analyzing climate trends at the University

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Teal forks are placed in the grass on the Diag Wednesday afternoon to represent survivors of sexual assault at the University. Buy this photo

By Carolyn Gearig, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 13, 2015

In the last two years, the University community’s attitude toward sexual assault has been frequently discussed and, at times, hotly debated on campus.

Most recently, a report in The Michigan Daily identified a discrepancy between the definition of consent applied by the University’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy and the one taught by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center.

The Student Sexual Misconduct Policy describes consent is a “clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed in mutually understandable words or actions, to engage in a particular activity. Consent can be withdrawn by either party at any point.” SAPAC’s definition goes farther, identifying consent as an explicitly verbal agreement, not satisfied by silence or body language.

Though the issue of sexual assault has faced scrutiny from University students and administrators, and even prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education, a number of campus leaders say climate around sexual assault is improving.

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SAPAC administrative coordinator Jen Sharkey, a University alum, said the positive culture shift has been evidenced in part by an increase in the number of SAPAC student volunteers. Ninety-two students joined in January. By contrast, 54 volunteers joined in 2014, 56 joined in 2013 and 25 joined in 2012.

She said part of the reason the number of volunteers increased so rapidly was because of a new class offered through the Health Sciences and Women’s Studies Departments called “Gender-Based Violence: From Theory To Action.” The class, taught by Nursing Prof. Michelle Munro — a former participant in SAPAC’s Peer Education Volunteer Program and University alum — requires enrolled students to undergo SAPAC or SafeHouse volunteer training. In January, the class brought 30 new volunteers to SAPAC.

Sharkey has been employed by SAPAC since 2010, but has been involved with the organization since she was a freshman at the University in 2002.

When she was a student, Sharkey said, SAPAC volunteers mainly focused on starting an initial dialogue about sexual assault, rather than facilitating it.

“It didn’t feel as prevalent or relevant as it does today,” she said. “I feel like I was the student in class who was trying to bring in that perspective, and we had to try really hard to get volunteers and build relationships to do our workshops. Now, there’s not so much of a need to go out looking for that because people are coming to us.”

LSA junior Fabiana Diaz, who said she was sexually assaulted as a freshman, said there was a point at which she felt isolated and unable to tell anyone about her experiences.

“When it first occurred, it was very a hush-hush situation,” she said. “I felt like I couldn’t speak to anyone about it. There were no communities where I felt I could talk to anybody about it except SAPAC.”

Diaz, a SAPAC volunteer and former LSA representative in the Central Student Government assembly, said she has seen a positive shift in campus climate since her first year here in 2012.

“I see it way more in my classes, and when I’m walking around I hear people talking about it,” she said. “The awareness is getting out there. I would still say there is a stigma around it but I’m seeing a lot of survivors sharing their stories. That bravery has opened a lot of doors and has given us a voice.”

Two years later

In September 2013, the University debuted a new sexual misconduct policy, shifting from a model driven by complaints to one that more actively involves University
investigators
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In the new policy’s first year, there was a sharp increase in the number of cases of reported sexual misconduct — which the University defines as “unwanted or unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that is committed without valid consent, including sexual assault and sexual harassment.”

According to the first Student Sexual Misconduct Annual Report released in November, 129 cases were reported to the University between June 2013 and June 2014. By comparison, 83 cases were reported from 2012 to 2013, 62 were reported from 2011 to 2012 and three were reported from 2010 to 2011.

In January 2014, the Daily reported that former Michigan football kicker Brendan Gibbons was “permanently separated” from the University after he was found responsible for sexual misconduct. A Title IX complaint filed over this case ultimately resulted in a federal investigation into the University’s handling of sexual misconduct.

In April 2014, the Office of Student Life hosted a panel discussion in partnership with the Daily about the University’s sexual misconduct policy, which included numerous administrators — SAPAC Director Holly Rider-Milkovich; Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones; Jay Wilgus, Office of Student Conflict Resolution director; and Anthony Walesby, the University’s Title IX coordinator. The panel drew 40 students.

“We are trailblazers,” Blake Jones said at the panel. “And an institution that most of the country looks to in terms of our prevention and education efforts.”

In September, Central Student Government planned a number of events pertaining to sexual assault in response to the White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign, which aims to end sexual assault at universities across the country.

In October, protesters covered the Diag with a list of seven demands calling for the University to improve campus sexual assault policies. Students carried mattresses around campus to raise awareness of sexual assault and abusive relationships as a part of the national Carry That Weight campaign. The campaign originated when Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz began carrying a mattress around the New York City campus in September after her alleged rapist was found not responsible for sexual misconduct by Columbia.

LSA junior Donald Lyons is the co-coordinator for SAPAC’s Men’s Activism Volunteer Program, which focuses on engaging men in the conversation surrounding sexual assault through workshops with a variety of campus communities like fraternities, athletics and ROTC.

Lyons said in the past few years, he has seen the Men’s Activism program triple in size, indicating men are becoming more involved in the dialogue about sexual assault. He said Carry That Weight exemplified this progress and campus-wide progress overall.

“If I were to choose one moment this year where I was like, this is going to be something that’s huge, that’s going to get people involved, it was Carry That Weight,” Lyons said. “I think that day on campus was so powerful.”

At SAPAC’s 28th annual Sexual Assault Speak Out in November, survivors were invited to speak openly about their experiences and attendance was so high — nearly 300 people — that it was standing room only.

LSA junior Anna Forringer-Beal is a co-coordinator for SAPAC’s Networking, Publicity and Activism program, which organizes the Speak Out. In the five semesters Forringer-Beal has volunteered with SAPAC, she said she’s seen a shift in how prominent the issue is on campus.

She added that this year’s Speak Out was indicative of this shift.

“I’m so proud that we had such a huge attendance,” she said, “So many people came and shared and spoke and really took ownership of their healing and their experience. Bringing up these issues and talking about it and creating a space for survivors to share is just so monumental.”

In January, University President Mark Schlissel announced that the University would randomly survey 3,000 students about the climate and knowledge of sexual assault on campus, the results of which are now in and being compiled.

The University is also part of a 27-school survey distributed by the Association of American Universities to compare trends in sexual assault across campuses nationwide. This survey was sent to students March 31.

“I figured that it would be valuable to have us be able to compare our data to that at a lot of different schools that are similar, big research universities, but different than us, to see how we’re doing,” Schlissel said in a January interview with the Daily.

CSG, LSA Student Government and the Engineering Student Government passed resolutions in February and March supporting the addition of the University’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy to course syllabi. These proposals recommend but do not require professors to add the policy.

LSA junior Laura Meyer, SAPAC volunteer coordinator, approached several student governments with the idea in February and CSG passed the resolution on March 17.

LSA senior Corey Walsh, former LSA-SG vice president, said there has been increased talk within the organization on this issue.

“I think it’s permeating a lot of student organizations right now across the spectrum, partially because of the campus climate surrounding it and partly because of national campaigns like It’s On Us,” Walsh said. “I think it’s something everyone can get on board with and wants to put an end to.”

LSA senior Emily Lustig, the former CSG vice president, echoed Walsh’s sentiment.

“Sexual assault awareness in general has exponentially increased across campus,” she said. “I think we have a really strong community that is really passionate. I think it has fostered a very different environment than the one I came in to.”

Additionally, the recent Daily report raised questions regarding how the University handles the investigation and sanctioning processes following a report of sexual assault — pointing out discrepancies between SAPAC’s definition of consent and the definition outlined in the University’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy.

In response to the article, SAPAC updated information on its web page about consent.

“One of the core values that guides SAPAC’s work is respect,” the new page reads. “And for SAPAC, consent is respect. As we work towards a world free of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, stalking and sexual harassment, we promote equality and respect for all members of our community through our commitment to primary prevention. Our primary prevention approach is centered on our vision and hope for a future where we all expect consent for sexual activity to be verbal or oral, sober, and enthusiastic.”

However, language around the University’s definition of consent — as articulated in the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy — remains largely unchanged compared to a version of the website updated on Jan. 17, 2015.

Culture shift and targeting specific demographics

In the last year, perhaps one of the most concentrated student-driven forums for discussion about sexual assault and violence was the Culture Shift retreat in January.

Forringer-Beal, Diaz and LSA juniors Meagan Shokar and Olivia Rath organized the two-day event in conjunction with the Office of Student Life to focus on topics such as rape culture and the University’s sexual misconduct policy.

“We wanted to bring people, and bring student leaders, together to give them a space to learn and collaborate,” Forringer-Beal said. “It was a strategic way to try and have this conversation collectively.”

Diaz said one of her goals is to bring more identities to the conversation, from men to members of the LGBTQ community to Black students.

“We need more intersectionality on our campus,” Diaz said. “We always focus on one identity, when survivors have multiple identities. We want to continue educating because that is the only way this will happen — by educating student leaders, who will pass that down. There’s not a united place where (student leaders) can all come together, and that’s what we are trying to do with Culture Shift, so we actually do create a shift in our culture.”

In this vein, Lyons said he hopes some of the dialogue about sexual assault will help men to broaden their perspectives and understand more nuanced narratives.

“Since there’s so much popular discourse around sexual assault, a lot of narratives end up being ‘those poor women’ narratives,” he said. "This can be unproductive because part of what we want to talk about is the systems surrounding these situations.”

Targeting men, in particular, is not a new concept for sexual assault education.

Like Culture Shift, I Will, a sexual assault awareness campaign established in February 2013, aims to make sexual assault a less taboo topic for all members of the community.

The program, organized by four then-LSA seniors, launched with the support of SAPAC, OSCR and the University’s Athletic Department.

University alum Josh Buoy, one of I Will’s founders, said in February 2013 that the program would place additional focus on men.

“Sexual assault and violence takes so many forms beyond rape, and that’s what we really want to do — we really want to educate — what qualifies as sexual assault because I think so many people, especially of the male gender, don’t know what it is,” Buoy said. “With this campaign, we’re working with everyone where they are.”

LSA senior Hannah Crisler, I Will director and a former athlete, said she saw a big change, especially within athletics, after it was reported that former football kicker Gibbons was permanently separated from the University in January 2013.

“It’s just so prominent in our culture right now,” she said. “Definitely having one of your star football players kicked out of school for doing a horrific act is going to stir up the water.”

I Will regularly hosts coffee shop events for students to talk about specific issues, in addition to workshops with CSG and other campus organizations and an awareness week every April.

What the future holds

Public Policy senior Laurel Ruza, the former CSG vice speaker, is an It’s On Us student organizer. Though she wasn’t directly involved with organizations discussing the issue before this year, Ruza said she’s noticed a change now that sexual assault is a more prominent part of campus conversation.

“When I was a freshman, I went through Relationship Remix and we had that hour and a half long conversation, and then it died off and the conversation ended,” she said. “What I’m starting to see now is that conversation is continuing in a lot of aspects on campus.”

Ruza said she thinks that a lot of progress needs to be made, both among students and administrators.

“I think there’s a ton more work to be done,” she said. “For a lot of campus, this really isn’t a topic of conversation. I think that administrators are recognizing that student voices around this issue are critical, and that students really do have a unique perspective. More work can be done in terms of educating the campus and raising awareness.”

Diaz said, she most of all hopes to see more education on campus about sexual violence.

“I wish that, on campus, everyone knew what a survivor was, and the real statistics of it, and the whole idea that it can happen to you,” she said. “It’s very possible. It can happen to your friend, your roommate. One people start opening their eyes to those facts, I think we’ll see a shift in our culture.”