In a packed auditorium in the University of Utah’s Spencer Fox Eccles Business Building, members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity sat among the nearly 175 students, campus administrators, and clinical professionals who had gathered to talk about sexual assault. The fraternity had organized the forum on this December afternoon with the U Center for Student Wellness and the Rape Recovery Center, a local nonprofit advocacy group, to help educate the U community about prevention of sexual assault and rape. “Why is it important? Why are we talking about it now?” Marty Liccardo BS’02, a health educator with the Center for Student Wellness and the moderator of the day’s discussion, asked the panel of experts. Undergraduate student Tara Streng, who did her honors thesis on college sexual assault policy, was the first of the panel members to respond. “Because it’s been an issue for a long time,” she said. “Prevention needs to look like more involvement, talking about it more. Education is key: what is consent, what is rape, and finding a force to end it.”
The forum was part of a nearly two-year-old partnership between Beta Theta Pi and the Rape Recovery Center to raise awareness on campus about sexual assault and how to prevent it. The fraternity’s efforts have drawn media attention that has included cameramen from the Dr. Phil television show filming the December forum and interviewing the fraternity’s then president, Mitchell Cox HBS’14 , for an episode that aired December 15.
The educational campaign on the University of Utah campus comes as colleges and universities across the United States are rethinking their policies on addressing and preventing sexual assault. Some 95 colleges and universities are now under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for how they have handled sexual assault cases on their campuses. (The University of Utah is not among them.) In response to the growing concerns, the department this past fall issued new rules requiring colleges to train students and employees on preventing sexual assault, dating violence, and domestic assaults, as well as stalking. The rules will take effect this July. Meanwhile, women and men on campuses nationwide have been filing Title IX lawsuits against their colleges, alleging that their reports of sexual assault were not taken seriously enough. Title IX requires that campus officials investigate reports of sexual harassment and assault, regardless of whether the police are involved. Colleges that fail to respond to complaints promptly and fairly can face sanctions, including the loss of all federal funds. This past September, President Barack Obama also launched a national campaign, “It’s On Us,” that calls for men and women to “make a personal commitment to step off the sidelines and be part of the solution to campus sexual assault.”
The University of Utah has scrutinized its own policies to make sure it has processes in place to responsibly handle assault cases and educate students and others about prevention. “There is no doubt that today sexual assault has to be high on the list of priorities,” U President David W. Pershing told KUER’s Radio West in October. “Our goal is to prevent these incidents to the best of our ability and particularly to take proactive action.” He noted that the issue is now a topic during freshman and transfer student orientation. The U also conducts independent investigations of sexual assaults, separate from any criminal inquiry, and students who are found guilty are dismissed from the University. “That is one of the things the federal government has been pushing, and we now have that in place and fully running,” Pershing says. The U also has been working to make faculty and staff members aware of support services that they can refer students to if they suspect a student might be having some sort of personal difficulty, including dealing with sexual assault.
The on-campus efforts of the partnership between the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and the Rape Recovery Center have come in tandem with the University’s efforts. The fraternity approached the center in 2013 offering to adopt the center as a philanthropic endeavor. Since then, some of the fraternity members have received 40 hours of training to work on the center’s 24-hour hotline, and the fraternity has raised about $9,200 to aid the center. In addition to the prevention forums that have been hosted on campus, Beta Theta Pi is teaming up with the Associated Students of the University of Utah (ASUU) to host a conference in March with student leaders of various campus organizations “to educate the campus as a whole, empowering others to be advocates for sexual assault interventions,” says the fraternity’s new president, Kevin Shields, who was elected in January.
Ambra Jackson, a junior who is president of the U’s Panhellenic Association, says sorority members also have attended the sexual assault prevention forums. “There’s value in putting men and women together,” she says. “These are conversations we need to start having with both. Sexual assault isn’t one person’s problem, it’s all of our problem. Forums help to define what we can do before and after. It’s not just closet conversations anymore.”
According to the University’s most recent Annual Security and Fire Safety Report, released this past October, 15 allegations of forcible sexual offenses were reported during 2013, with 10 reported on campus and five in residential facilities. U Police Chief Dale Brophy MPA’03 says his department promptly addresses any individual’s report. “When we get a sexual assault report, it’s a high priority for us on campus,” he says. “What we try to do is put all our resources toward that right up front.”
Following investigation by the U police department, two of the alleged incidents in the latest security report are being or will be adjudicated. “Campus rape is very rare up here,” Brophy says. “But nothing can be done if something did happen and it was not reported.” In other cases, he adds, the person making the report simply wants to convey the information and does not want further action to be taken, and they may even wish to remain anonymous. Some people will have waited years, even decades, to report an incident, until they finally just want it to be known by someone. Regardless, when anyone makes a report, the police department contacts other on-campus resources for assistance, including the Center for Student Wellness, the Women’s Resource Center, and the University Counseling Center.
Lori McDonald BS’95, the U’s dean of students, says any report of nonconsensual contact, up to and including rape, is called “sexual misconduct” in higher education. “At that time, there are a couple of things I would like anyone who has a report like that to know: First and foremost is concern for their well-being. It may be reporting somebody they know, and that can be very stressful,” she says. Such a report leads to U resources for helping take care of the person making the report, from providing on-campus counseling to seeing a victim advocate. “We have a commitment to the community, as well, to try and keep it as safe as possible,” she says. “But we’re not going to compel someone to have to report or participate. And those support services are going to be there regardless.” Because trauma can affect academic performance, students also are provided with options such as withdrawing from a class if a suspect also is in that class, arranging new housing, or taking a semester off.
The U’s formal process for investigating sexual assault claims, in addition to any criminal proceedings that may also be conducted, are based on guidance from the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Department of Education. Unlike criminal investigations, such as those done by outside law enforcement, the standard for the U inquiries is “preponderance of evidence,” McDonald says. “We’re looking at, ‘Is it more likely than not that one of our policies was violated?’ If not, we’re still going to support the students during the investigation and after the investigation.” Those U policies include the student code of conduct, which prohibits sexual harassment and discrimination. “Our investigations are more analogous to civil rights investigations,” she says.
Krista Pickens, the U’s Title IX coordinator and director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, helps oversee those U inquiries. A former Salt Lake City police officer and sex crimes investigator, she also was once the victim of an attempted sexual assault. She was 19 years old and working as a waitress in Hawaii, walking home with her tips, when a stranger punched her, breaking bones around her eye. “Luckily, there were some local boys who heard what was going on, and he actually got the worst of it,” she says. “You’ve got all those layers that you see victims go through: ‘What did I do? Did I deserve it?’ ”
Universities are developing new models for investigating claims of sexual assault, even as new obligations arise, she notes. “The increased obligations are to address stalking, domestic violence, dating violence, and whether or not they occur on campus. If they affect the employee or the student, we’ve got to address them,” she says.
The obligation extends to incidents affecting students off campus. If a student reports an off-campus sexual assault, a city police detective and the U’s Office of Equal Opportunity investigator will coordinate talking to the victim, a process that usually involves several interviews. For a Title IX case, the standard of proof is preponderance of the evidence, which is more than 50 percent, while in a criminal case, the standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a much higher standard.
Another issue is the manner in which victims are questioned. One technique is called the forensic experiential trauma interview (FETI), which begins with understanding that the victim almost certainly cannot give a linear account of what happened. “They can’t tell you how tall the guy was. They just say, ‘I was so afraid,’ or whatever it is they felt,” Pickens says. Researchers have found that when trauma occurs, the prefrontal cortex of the brain will frequently shut down, leaving the more primitive portions of the brain to experience and record the event. So, if pressed, a victim may “fail” to remember much about what they’re being questioned about. The FETI technique entails using principles employed in critical incident stress debriefing and defusing. FETI also draws from principles and techniques developed for forensic child interviews as well as from neurobiology of memory and psychological trauma. The technique is a sort of forensic psychophysiological investigation and provides an opportunity for the victim to describe the experience of the sexual assault or other traumatic and/or fear-producing event, physically and emotionally. Pickens’ office at the University employs this technique, while the U campus police use a similar forensic interview technique developed by the Children’s Justice Center when talking with people reporting cases of sexual assault.
When it comes to education and prevention efforts, Liccardo, the counselor at the Center for Student Wellness, says the University of Utah requires that every first-year student receive an hour with the Center for Student Wellness and the Dean of Students office. “We cover sexual misconduct, bystander prevention, which is how you step in and intervene if sexual violence is happening, how you stop things that are not good,” he says. Students are told about their rights, and the center has a victim advocate who provides confidentiality to victims. All student leaders and residential advisors, as well as student club and organization leaders, get the same training.
Concurrently, students are educated about consent. “We talk about it as rape prevention, but really, consent is part of a normal, healthy relationship,” Liccardo says. “Sexual communication is something everybody should be doing. These are life skills.”
The larger societal problem that the U efforts are geared to address is enormous in scale. According to Utah government statistics, one in three Utah women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, and one in eight will be raped in her lifetime. “This is not a small crime. It is a very, very large crime, and college campuses are not immune by any stretch of the imagination,” Liccardo says.
The Beta Theta Pi members hope the educational efforts by the U and the campus forums the fraternity has organized will help begin to shift that trend. “We really need to start taking action on sexual assault and stop ignoring it,” Cox told local TV station KSL in an interview at the December forum. “Hopefully students are able to walk away from the forum with some sort of action plan they can implement in their own lives to really start to prevent sexual assault from occurring, both on college campuses and in our society.”
—Peg McEntee is a former longtime journalist with The Salt Lake Tribune and Associated Press who now works as a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer.
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