The challenge of sexual violence on campus

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Sexual misconduct cases are a rising trend—one that places some Rochester higher-education institutions near the top of a statewide list aggregating incident reports. 

In 2019, 510 incidents of sexual violence were reported by colleges and universities in the Rochester area, up from 397 the year before. Statewide, incident reports rose to 4,031 from 3,869 in 2018. 

“When it comes to sexual assault, even one case is too many,” says Kaitlin Hill, a recent SUNY Brockport graduate and former peer educator at the college’s Center for Select Respect. “This is a systemic issue that will not change until the culture that allows it to continue changes and we give the support to survivors that they need.” 

Nationally, a 2019 Association of American Universities survey found that the overall rate of non-consensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent since a respondent enrolled as a student was 13 percent. The rates for women and transgender, genderqueer, and non-binary students were significantly higher than for men. For the 21 schools that participated in both the 2019 survey and one conducted in 2015, the rate increased especially among undergraduate women—up 3 percentage points to 26.4 percent. 

Some experts believe the rising number of sexual violence reports reflects a newfound willingness to report these incidents. Many also cite the need for prevention training, which is also on the rise, to be ramped up.

Analyzing the data

New York State Education Law Article 129-B, more commonly known as “Enough Is Enough,” was passed in 2015. It requires colleges and universities to implement uniform prevention and response policies and procedures related to sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking. In 2018, it began publishing its annual findings electronically.

An analysis of the most recent report shows that colleges and universities across New York reported an average of 24 assaults in 2019. Among those located in the Rochester area, only four out of 12 were under the statewide average: Finger Lakes Community College, Genesee Community College, Roberts Wesleyan College and the Colgate-Rochester Divinity School.

With 142 reported incidents, University of Rochester had the most number of cases locally, doubling 2018. Rochester Institute of Technology had the second-highest number with 77 reported incidents, followed by 63 incidents at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Two SUNY colleges, Brockport and Geneseo, reported more than 50 incidents while smaller campuses, Nazareth College and St. John Fisher College, recorded 34 and 27 incidents, respectively.

Monroe Community College, where more than 10,000 students—many of them commuters—were enrolled in 2019, was toward the lower end of reported incidents with 31 in total. A majority (55 percent) of incidents reported by MCC occurred off campus.

When the Enough is Enough data is adjusted to account for enrolled students, UR had a rate of one reported incident for every 100 students, putting it in the middle of the pack. Hobart and William Smith Colleges, on the other hand, had a rate of three reported incidents per 100 students, which was the third-highest rate statewide. 

Kate Nearpass, assistant vice president for civil rights compliance and Title IX coordinator at UR, views the rising number of incidents at the university as concerning but says it reflects increased willingness among students to report incidents.

“It might look like we’re doing a terrible job, but … it’s the same level of bad behavior,” Nearpass says. (More) people are willing to come forward to say, ‘This happened to me.’ It’s good they’re reporting these incidents.”

In keeping with this increased caseload, UR’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, was recently expanded to include civil rights compliance and Title IX in its functions. Nearpass, who used to be the sole investigator for Title IX cases (those related to discrimination based on sex), now works with four investigators. 

While private universities had a higher rate of incidents per student compared with public institutions, it was only a slight difference. Officials at Hobart and William Smith and RIT did not respond to Rochester Beacon requests for comment.

A national movement

The #Me Too movement is often cited as a reason for the increase in reported incidents. While it was launched in 2006 by Tarana Burke, an activist from the Bronx, the sexual violence advocacy group went viral in 2017 when a number of high-profile celebrities including Alyssa Milano and Terry Crews used it to highlight sexual harrassment in Hollywood.

“Since the #Me Too movement, it hasn’t changed the number of issues, but made people more able to come forward now,” Nearpass says. 

Hill’s involvement with the Center for Select Respect, a SUNY Brockport office focused on issues of relationship violence, sexual violence, stalking and other college lifestyle concerns, was influenced by the #Me Too movement as well.

In 2017, a number of UR faculty members, including Celeste Kidd and Jessica Cantlon, brought sexual misconduct accusations against fellow professor T. Florian Jaeger. They were among the group named as Time magazine Persons of the Year and recently reached a settlement of $9.4 million in their lawsuit with UR.

“These women coming forward were part of what made me get involved with Select Respect,” says Hill, who also identifies as a survivor. “I also realized I already talked about these topics with my friends all the time.”

Adds Hill: “In today’s climate, there’s a microscope on how funding is spent for Title IX, there’s a microscope for how funding is spent for policing. It’s something schools are taking seriously now.”

Even with such scrutiny, the American Association of University Women maintains that women are still reluctant to notify officials of harassment. As a result, official reports vastly understate its occurrence, AAUW contends. 

Examining the process

In addition to tallying the number of sexual incidents, the Enough is Enough report also details the complaint process.

If, after the initial report, the complaining party seeks charges, the school completes a full investigation either under Title IX or, due to changes to the standard for sexual assault enacted in August 2020, the university’s own code of conduct. This is separate from a criminal investigation, which can be pursued in addition to the Title IX office’s investigation.

“We encourage, but do not require, a meeting with my office. The meeting is just to tell the individual’s options and resources like the counseling center,” Nearpass says. “We respect the student’s decision in moving forward with an investigation or not.”

At UR, a Title IX and university security officer are paired up to interview involved parties and collect necessary information to present at a hearing before a third-party adjudicator. If a student is deemed responsible, they can face suspension or full expulsion from the institution. In terms of incident case completion rate, where an incident is followed through to disciplinary action, Nazareth and RIT ranked among the highest in New York in 2019 with rates of 29 percent and 26 percent, respectively. SUNY Geneseo was among the lowest in the state with a rate of 1.8 percent.

Training helps

One area of growth for nearly all campuses was prevention training offered for sexual harassment, violence and stalking. From 2018 to 2019, an average increase of 12 training sessions were recorded among Rochester universities for both staff and students.

SUNY Geneseo had more than 50 training sessions in 2019 and Hobart and William Smith reported training numbers topped 100 percent of their enrolled student total. Much of SUNY Brockport’s training comes from decision-making “EagleCHECK” training, which all freshmen and transfer students are required to complete.

“Everyone jokes about our phrase ‘You better EagleCHECK yourself before you EagleWRECK yourself,’” Hill says.“But, I mean, they remember it, so that’s the important part.”

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many colleges and universities continued to offer training virtually, with many events hosted on social media. The Center for Select Respect held weekly “Hot Topic” discussions related to health and well-being. Still, there existed a gap between the virtual and real world.

“Meaningful conversations happen in person when you can get someone to get outside their comfort zone,” Hill says. “It’s one thing to watch a video; it’s another thing to have to answer directly about how to ask for consent.” 

The return to campus

With students returning to campus in the fall, UR’s Nearpass is preparing for a much different school year by building up her investigative and administrative support.

“This position didn’t exist two years ago, it’s very new. I’m very new, not to the work—I handled investigations for nine years—but to being the head,” Nearpass says. “But the university is dedicated to supporting me and students. Even creating the position is a focused effort on their part.”

Hill hopes that Nearpass and others like her who are involved in these issues will take the time to consider student mental health after a stressful year, particularly for people already suffering from trauma.

“COVID caused retraumatization for a lot of people. The constant uncertainty and being afraid. Afraid of touching people and being touched because of the virus, which then was part of the original trauma,” Hill says. “Students will be overly anxious and colleges should overemphasize their training because a lot of people will benefit.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon intern. He is pursuing a graduate degree in journalism at City University of New York.

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