From the viral spread of the #MeToo movement to the brave testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, it’s not a secret that sexual violence is pervasive in our society. However, we are now living in a political and social climate where many survivors of sexual violence are feeling a sense of empowerment to speak up about their experiences. It’s a time of increased awareness, accountability and ultimately, a call for change.
Living during this important time for social change, I began wondering how my own community, the University of Michigan, can better inform students about this situation. While organizations that you may be familiar with (e.g. the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center) and the University administration should continue to focus on preventative efforts, it’s equally important for these institutions to understand that sexual violence on college campuses is indeed a widespread issue that students and universities must be equipped to handle.
The addition of an in-person hearing — a process that allows students who have been involved in sexual misconduct allegations to ask questions of each other and witnesses — to the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy motivated me to write my senior honors thesis titled “Legal Underpinnings and Implications of Sexual Assault on College Campuses: Perceptions, Attitudes and Policy Recommendations.” My thesis focused on the potential implications of the changes to the SSMP and student’s knowledge about reporting sexual misconduct on this campus. Are these changes helpful? Are students informed about them? Are these attempts by the University to reform reporting sexual misconduct enough?
Prior to the adoption of this interim policy, students were able to circumvent many of these legal proceedings, including an in-person hearing, and report directly to the University. When I began at the University of Michigan, survivors had the option to report to the University about their experiences. In response to these allegations, the University may have responded by changing a student’s classes or moving their dorm. In contrast, students could report to law enforcement where they would have a formal trial. However, the adoption of this policy blurs the line between the traditional criminal justice system and the ways the University approaches sexual misconduct. With this policy change, in the eyes of many, what was once two distinct ways of reporting sexual misconduct coalesces into two indistinguishable options.
As such, with the number of reported incidents expected to decrease, I wanted to collect data surrounding students’ perceptions of reporting and adjudicating sexual misconduct on campus. To gain an understanding of what is currently available to survivors, I had conversations with various offices on campus (i.e., SAPAC, Counseling and Psychological Services, Ann Arbor Police Department and Division of Public Safety and Security). My goal with these conversations was to identify what makes their office unique and especially valuable to survivors. For example, CAPS is geared toward creating positive mental pathways while SAPAC services can help with crisis intervention and can help survivors formulate an individualized healing plan.
Building off of these conversations with campus officials, I interviewed students across all three University of Michigan campuses—Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint. I asked students various questions including what resources they would recommend if a friend came to them after experiencing intimate partner violence or sexual assault. The results from a sample of 32 participants indicated that half of the participants said they did not know of any on or off campus resources to which they would direct a friend.
The lack of awareness of the interviewed students was disturbing and perplexing. For many students, reporting is not an option they are interested in pursuing. However, for those who are interested in exploring their options, how can students feel safe when they don’t even know where to report their grievances or seek resources?
Currently, the University has various prevention programs in place. U-M Ann Arbor offers a three-step process for all incoming undergraduates. This includes an online module about alcohol and sexual violence; the peer-delivered program Relationship Remix, aimed at teaching college freshmen about consent, personal values, and healthy relationships; and a bystander intervention program called Change it Up!, which is delivered as a skit-based performance by students.
U-M Flint and U-M Dearborn also offer online programs to educate their incoming students. The University needs to consider whether efforts solely targeting incoming students (freshmen and transfer students) are sufficient to provide education related to campus misconduct policies and reporting options. At least from a reporting standpoint, with 50 percent of my sample unclear of where to report, it seems that these educational programs are clearly not sufficient.
It’s difficult to say with certainty how the new policy will be embraced by students on campus. However, what is clear is that students do not have adequate knowledge of current campus resources.
It might be instinctual to blame the University for these lapses in knowledge, as many students in my sample did. However, it is also equally likely that students are part of the problem. Despite the known prevalence of sexual misconduct on college campuses, no student wants to think that they or someone they know will ever be in need of reporting sexual misconduct or of survivor-centered services.
A knowledgeable and aware student body requires the efforts of both students and the University. As a tangible product of my thesis and in hopes that my research will help students understand what resources exist on our campus, I created a graphic. My hope is that this resource will educate students, emphasize the importance of knowing your options, and prove that you are never alone at the University of Michigan.