Though a recent report discovered that there is a “culture of secrecy” on college campuses when it comes to sexual assault, University officials and campus groups say that isn’t the case at the University.
The report commissioned by the Center for Public Integrity called Sexual Assault on Campus found that there is a “culture of silence” surrounding sexual assaults on university campuses. According to Kristen Lombardi, the lead writer of the report, 95 percent of college women who have been sexually assaulted do not report it to an official.
“Students that reported being victims on campus often see a host of barriers that ensure their silence or leave them feeling re-victimized,” she said.
Lombardi said she and her co-reporter interviewed 48 college officials and other experts on the topic, including campus victim advocates and sexual assault service coordinators, as part of the study. They also interviewed 50 students who had been sexually assaulted while they were in college.
Lombradi said many of the students they interviewed said their school administration discouraged them from involving the campus judicial branch by painting the process in a “negative and unappealing light.”
“This keeps students from moving forward,” she said. “They think, ‘if I’m not going to be supported then, why should I bother telling anybody.’”
But Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Diane Brown said this isn’t the case at the University. She said DPS works to try and dispel myths that it wouldn’t move forward with an investigation through a 10-point promise brochure issued earlier this semester.
“This brochure illustrates the commitment that police officers here have to working with the individual that makes complaints of being sexually assaulted,” she said. “It’s also our way of having something for people who know someone who has been assaulted so they can have a document to give them.”
The 10-point promise says that police officers will meet with the individual at a place of his or her choosing and will consider the case regardless of gender and sexual orientation.
Brown said student victims are in control of the whole process, can stop at any point and are constantly kept informed throughout.
“What this promise is attempting to do is dispel and debunk the myths that once you tell the police you lose all control,” she said. “That’s not true.”
Brown added that the University encourages students who have been victimized to report it so the University can help.
“When those laws are violated we all need to help support the enforcement of those laws. The police can only do so much,” she said. “They can’t enforce laws if they don’t know something has occurred.”
Brown said that contrary to the report’s findings, the University encourages students to report sexual assaults because it not only benefits the victim, but the University as well.
“This is an environment of encouraging reporting to be accurate and helpful to our University community,” she said. “Cover-up is never going to be helpful since it never results in a good resolution for individual and certainly isn’t good for the University in the long run.”
In addition to coming forward to DPS, students have other options at the University when it comes to reporting sexual assault. Jennifer Schrage, director of the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, said she and her staff work closely with experts on campus to understand what survivors go through in a sexual assault to make the reporting process as open as possible.
OSCR and the Sexual Assault Prevention Awareness Center have recently created a toolkit to make reporting an assault easier and dispel the cover-up culture. The toolkit also gives guidance to those working with the victim to make sure they handle the issue in a sensitive manner.
Schrage said the office provides victims with all their options as soon as they enter the office and before the victim tells them anything to avoid creating a “re-victimizing experience for the survivor.”
“We really want this particular student to be in the driver’s seat because of what may have occurred. It’s important for them to feel empowered and help them make the choices right for them,” she said.
Schrage said OSCR’s process is a leader in the field.
“I’m getting calls from all over the country for information on how we do our work in general,” she said.
Schrage added that though the University faces the same “conundrums” when it comes to these issues as many other institutions do, by working with SAPAC and other organizations they hope University students will feel more comfortable reporting sexual assaults.
“We know that, in the general population, one in four students are targeted with sexual violence but only 4 percent go to the authorities,” she said. “These are very discouraging numbers and we’re doing our best to tip the scales.”
Crosby Modrowski, a SAPAC student volunteer, said that in her experience working with victims she hasn’t heard of any instances of students being “shushed away” like those mentioned in the report.
“U of M’s program is actually really good in terms of efforts to help in training and prevention,” she said. “I truly believe that the University creates policies that help the survivor do whatever it is they want.”
Modrowski said SAPAC works together with DPS and OSCR to help achieve this.
“Sexual assaults happen everywhere,” she said. “If campuses try to have more progressive training and helping efforts like Michigan’s, then there will be more reports and more reports is ultimately good because it allows the survivors to get the help they need.”