This is a guest post by our regular contributor Rosanna Tamburri, co-author of our feature story, “Ending sexual violence on campus.”
When University Affairs editor Peggy Berkowitz contacted me to co-write a story about campus sexual assault, I was out of town visiting a university my daughter was considering attending this fall. It was late spring, the weekend before convocation and the graduates had returned to pick up their gowns and mortarboards. Streamers were hung and there was an air of festivity.
It brought back happy memories of my own university years and I was excited for her. But, like any parent, I was apprehensive too. It was by chance that I met the head of campus security, who assured me of the school’s good safety record and how few incidents of serious crime he encountered. And I didn’t really doubt him but I also know that things go on behind closed doors that, for many reasons, aren’t reported.
On the trip I asked my daughter if she or her friends had given any thought to campus safety or sexual assault policies when making their choices. “Not really,” she said, although she told me an older friend who was already in her first year had shown her how the Blue Lamp system at that university worked. That’s good, I said, but then told her most sexual assaults are committed by someone you know, not by someone lurking in the bushes, although that happens too.
I told her she should lock her residence room door at night, never leave her drink unattended and to know her limit when it comes to drinking. Then I was at a loss. I might as well have said “Just be careful” like my own mother did. And why should the onus be all on her, anyway?
Towards the end of the school year, she came home and said her high school biology teacher had spent the class talking about drinking and the meaning of consent and how one can negate the other. I feel as though I owe him a debt of gratitude and I think it’s a shame that not all students could have heard what he had to say.
In researching the story on campus sexual assault, I spoke with people who were extremely committed to bringing this issue into the open and addressing it head on. But there were a few others who preferred not to answer questions or altogether ignored my requests for an interview. Meanwhile, in all the acceptance letters and welcome packages from universities that flooded our mailbox this past spring, there was little mention of what universities are doing to keep their campuses safe.
I know reputations are at risk. I know that each year universities are asked to do more to tackle mental illness, binge drinking, drug use and a host of other things that seem peripheral to their core mission. But surely this is too important to sweep under the rug or leave in the hands of student orientation committees as some institutions still inexplicably choose to do.
The one thing that puzzles me is why sexual assault has, until just recently, garnered so little attention given that women make up the majority of students at most campuses and in most disciplines. Maybe the best advice I can give my daughter is to defend her right to live and learn in a safe and respectful environment.