With a new initiative headed by Michigan first lady Sue Snyder, sexual assault on college campuses is set to face spirited bipartisan activism, as discussed at the third annual sexual assault prevention summit at Eastern Michigan University.
“We all must work together to create an environment where survivors feel safe and encouraged to be heard,” Snyder said.
Nearly 500 students, representatives from the University of Michigan Police Department, Title IX investigators, health care practitioners, university faculty and survivors attended the daylong summit that featured speeches and discussions by notable officials such as Gov. Rick Snyder and Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich. Multiple small-group discussions were also offered to discuss topics such as masculinity, trauma and campus norms.
First lady Snyder released a handbook written by the sexual assault workgroup task force she organized in May. The handbook, which will also be released online, is geared toward survivors of sexual assault and aims to streamline the often tedious, overwhelming process of navigating options after sexual assault.
“Too often they don’t know what they can do, where to turn, what kind of help they can get, and this is going to be a great tool for them,” she said.
While prevention is often the focus of sexual assault activism, keynote speaker Dr. Rebecca Campbell, professor of psychology at Michigan State University, reiterated Snyder’s idea that post-assault care is important, but often neglected. She suggested everyone prepare positive social reactions that can help the survivor feel in control if ever trusted with the disclosure of a sexual assault.
“How you, me and we react to disclosures can have a profound effect on sexual assault survivors,” Campbell said. “It can affect if there will be any more disclosures made. Disclosures are like a stepping stone that could eventually lead to help seeking.”
First daughter Kelsey Snyder, an LSA senior, said Campbell's words helped inspire her to become involved with sexual assault prevention. Kelsey Snyder expressed excitement for these education-based efforts. Having conducted many talks through the University’s Panhellenic Association, she found a large part of the sexual assault problem on campus stems from many students’ inability to recognize it.
“A lot of times, when I do presentations on the University of Michigan’s campus, especially to Greek life, I’ll go into a fraternity and say, ‘What is sexual assault?’ and a lot of them can’t tell me a definition of it because they’re unaware of certain things that fall into that category,” Snyder said. “Education is like the baseline of what we’re trying to do.”
Kelsey Snyder is the director of the Panhellenic peer educators who organize the Speak Out for Greek life that provides an open forum for survivors to share their stories.
“I am really proud of Kelsey stepping up and the role she’s played. As you’ve heard she’s gone to fraternities to talk to young men about this issue,” Gov. Snyder said. “I mean, that’s the kind of involvement we need.”
Some lawmakers were concerned when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued new rules requiring a higher standard of evidence for sexual assault cases. Additionally, Trump recently removed a report of sexual violence from the White House website. The Obama-era report was often used as a resource for those doing research on sexual assault.
“I don’t have a fear and I hope it comes together well. I’ve talked to Betsy DeVos and I’ve shown her what we’ve done in the state and I told her we are a resource for whatever she may need,” Sue Snyder said. “I honestly don’t think it’s going to hurt. I think it will help.”
EMU sophomore Joheny Yanes agreed with Kelsey Snyder in that Campbell's words hold a lot of weight.
“I think it is great to be able to listen to politicians’ words, but since Campbell is a researcher, she had like firsthand experience with survivors, and their stories are often the most moving,” Yanes said.
Many campus-level initiatives are taking place due to funding granted to the University by the state to prevent sexual assault –– Sue Snyder said Michigan is the only state which allocates general budget dollars to this effort. But additionally, the state legislature has introduced legislation with many of the same goals, largely due to the female representatives on the appropriations committee.
“We are making sure that survivors have access to their medical records when they do seek treatment and go through a rape kit,” Sue Snyder said.
State Rep. Kristy Pagan, D-Canton, said the legislation, known as the Sexual Assault Victims' Medical Forensic Intervention and Treatment Act, will provide funding to medical care and forensics teams that work on sexual assault cases, while ensuring survivors have access to counseling.
Additionally, Rep. Debbie Dingell said they are working on funding a sexual assault kit tracking system that would allow survivors to know exactly where their kit is in the criminal justice process, whether it be the prosecutor's office or a lab. If they are successful in allocating the funds, Michigan would be the first state in the country to provide kit tracking.
Campbell explained many victims of sexual assault refrain from disclosing the crime in fear that their inebriation during the assault would place blame on them or make them vulnerable to minor in possession offenses. State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Van Buren, however, said the women on the panel wanted to rid survivors of as many worries as possible.
“We amended the law so that minors who had been drinking and were getting a sexual assault exams would not be getting a minor in possession,” Schuitmaker said. “Sexual assault is the top priority of the situation and we didn’t want survivors to have any barriers.”
With the support of attendees and bipartisan political leaders, Dingell said the state and federal governments will continue advocating for the safety of college campuses and empowerment of survivors.
“I remember what it was like to be on college campus. I remember the shame, the trauma. We cannot go back,” she said.