About 100 students gathered in Annenberg Auditorium to listen to a series of speakers address the topic of campus sexual assault as a part of a policy talk at the Ford School of Public Policy Thursday night.

William Axinn, a research professor at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, underscored the implications of his research, which focuses on gathering and analyzing statistics on sexual assault.

“I think you’ll see numbers that demonstrate that all of us are bystanders,” Axinn said. “And as a result, it can be pretty stressful to look at some of these numbers. I’m the data guy, but not the happy data guy.”

According to Axinn, 25 percent of American women report they have been forced into sexual intercourse. However, women are almost three times more likely to experience this type of assault on university campuses.

At the University, Axinn’s research tries to quantify one of the most pervasive problems regarding sexual assault: underreporting. Of the sexual assaults in the last 12 months, only 46 percent of survivors tell anyone about their assault, and of those, only 3.6 percent report to an official resource at the University. 

In an attempt to mitigate some of these problems, he works with the National Survey of Family Growth, an organization that seeks to inform the discussion on sexual assault in the United States, to increase participation in surveys about sexual violence.

By using third-party facilitators and a non-web based poll, the latest survey conducted by the University got a 67 percent response rate, which is considered high in the field. 

Pamela Heatlie, the deputy Title IX coordinator in the Office for Institutional Equity, said much of her work at the OIE is aimed at improving the 3.6 percent sexual assault reporting rate, including updating the sexual misconduct policy in July to include expanded definitions and scope of acceptable conduct.

She emphasized this process was centered on giving students choices and control with how they proceed.

“For the most part, we want claimants to feel a sense of control in what can feel like a very uncontrollable situation,” she said.

She discussed whether sexual assault should be handled internally at all, as this can compromise investigations. She elaborated that civil rights laws, in particular Title IX guidance, require the school to provide services to investigate sexual discrimination, including sexual assault.

Holly Rider-Milkovich, the former director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, attempted to dispel what she felt was a fallacy in the way campuses dealt with sexual assault.

“Oftentimes, when I am talking about this issue on campus, there is a false dichotomy that is struck,” she said. “That we can either focus on prevention, or we can focus on compliance, and I really encourage us as a community and us nationally to stop dividing these two pieces, that we can both do excellent work in compliance, and excellent work in prevention. And I would argue that the best way to achieving compliance is to do our very best work in prevention.”

She used the University as an example of a school that has a robust system for dealing with sexual assault, and to her, the first step in creating this kind of system is a focus on long-term funding.

Rider-Milkovich discussed how the University’s program has evolved over the past 25 years, beginning with an initial focus on preventing sexual assault and its consequences. While this was considered a standard industry practice for the time, she detailed how the University has since spearheaded a more comprehensive approach. This approach emphasizes what healthy sexuality looks like and mandates participation in healthy sexuality events for all incoming students. With these steps, she also referenced the desire to increase student reporting of crimes, as well as the hope for a decrease in overall incidents.

Public Policy senior Emma Zorfass, who has volunteered with SAPAC throughout her entire college career, underscored the need for more education.

“We want to start talking more explicitly about the connection between sexual violence and other forms of violence,” Zorfass said. “Sexism, racism, xenophobia, etc., they all happen in the same space and they’re interconnected, so it makes sense to talk about them all together.”

This focus has increased outreach between student organizations and facilitated dialogue about increases in violence as well. Dialogue between SAPAC and student groups is something Zorfass feels can help reach more students on campus throughout their college careers. 

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