In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, several local and national officials involved in sexual misconduct prevention on college campuses, including University officials, discussed the issue in a conference call Thursday morning.
Later in the day, along with a screening of the documentary film “The Hunting Ground” on campus, a second panel of University officials joined individuals involved in the film to consider the topic.
The call featured Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, “The Hunting Ground” film’s producer and director, respectively. From the University, Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, and Public Policy senior Laurel Ruza, “It’s On Us” student organizer, participated in the call. Lisa Winchell-Caldwell, senior program manager of the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, and Laura Palumbo, National Sexual Violence Resource Center prevention campaign specialist, also joined the call to discuss state and national efforts.
Palumbo said the goal of the call was to connect partners in locally and nationally to discuss the issue of sexual assault on campuses in conjunction with a screening of “The Hunting Ground” on campus.
The documentary follows two survivors of sexual assault at the University of North Carolina through their process of reporting their assaults.
“ ‘The Hunting Ground’ is a very powerful film, it has an incredible message, but we want people to also know that they can connect with organizations, like the national Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center and the It’s On Us campaign, to be involved in a part of a larger movement to create change,” Palumbo said.
During the call, Ziering said the issue of sexual misconduct on campus can sometimes become convoluted due to misperceptions of how many reports are false. She said only 4 to 8 percent of reports are not true.
“It’s not as complicated or gray or hard to figure out what exactly went on as the culture or public perception would have you believe,” she said.
The University is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education over its handling of sexual misconduct.
Dick said campus leaders have the ability to make the issue of sexual misconduct on campus a top priority.
“I would like to see, since it is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, college presidents present at the number of activities going on, and speaking very forcefully about how important this is, to them personally, but also how important it is for all the students,” Dick said.
Palumbo echoed his sentiment, stressing the role university administrations play in setting the tone for a community-wide effort to prevent campus misconduct.
“College campus administrators have the responsibility and ability to really set the tone for prevention on campus,” she said. “When they show institutional commitment, it reflects good leadership, it sets the tone for all of the accountability measures on campus, and sends a message of the significance of the campus’ sexual assault prevention and response effort.”
Rider-Milkovich said the University’s priority is promoting verbal, sober and enthusiastic consent before having sex.
She added that though the conversations regarding enthusiastic consent may be awkward at first, the University is committed to shifting the culture around consent through programs such as AlcoholEdu and Relationship Remix.
“I think it’s really valuable that these programs are providing the evidence that students can understand why it’s so critical, and have good role models on how to have those conversations, how proactive sober consent doesn’t have to be awkward or uncomfortable. It can be a natural part of that relationship’s progression,” Winchell-Caldwell said.
A Michigan Daily report published Wednesday pointed to discrepancies between the definition of consent taught to students by SAPAC and the definition applied in University disciplinary processes. While SAPAC says silence and body language do not satisfy consent, the University’s Sexual Misconduct Policy defines consent as “Clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed in mutually understandable words or actions, to engage in a particular activity.”
“I am very excited that ‘The Hunting Ground’ is coming to the University of Michigan, that we are a campus and community that is not fearful of having difficult conversations,” Rider-Milkovich said. “I think it is important to have difficult conversations in order for us to really get to the heart of this issue.”
Ruza said as a student she appreciated the efforts of those working in administration and on a national level who devote their time to making a culture shift around the topic of college sexual misconduct.
“For me as a student, it was really great to hear the perspectives of the folks who created ‘The Hunting Ground,’ as well as the other experts on the panel who do this work every day.”
The screening of “The Hunting Ground” at Rackham Amphitheatre Thursday night also featured a panel discussion with Milkovich, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, the main subjects of the film, Paul Blavin, a ‘96 University alum and executive producer of the film, Margie Pillsbury, a Department of Public Safety and Security officer and head of the new Special Victims Unit, and Anna Forringer-Beal, networking, publicity and activism program co-coordinator of SAPAC.
The event attracted many students, faculty members and parents, with the amphitheatre completely full and people sitting in the aisles.
Clark told the crowd that at the end of the day, decisive steps have to be taken in response to the issue of sexual assault on college campuses.
“Even though some schools have really great policies, they still have zero expulsions, and I think until we start changing that number — until we have higher numbers of reporters, higher numbers of students actually being found responsible — it’s going to be very hard for us to change this problem” she said.
Pillsbury said she was hopeful that reporting would increase now that the SVU — a unit with officers trained to investigate crimes such as sexual assault and domestic abuse — is in place.
“Many times we don’t end up getting the justice (the survivors) want, but I really applaud their courage, and we do everything we can to show them that we believe them, and what their options are moving forward in the justice system,” she said. “I’m excited about the new SVU and hoping that the University will begin to make more reports to the police department.”
Daily Staff Reporter Lara Moehlman contributed to this report.