Speaker addresses sexual assault issues on campuses


The need for college campuses to reform their systems of reporting, handling and educating about sexual assault was addressed April 5 in Williams Hall.

Caroline Heldman, a politics professor at Occidental College was the lead Title IX plaintiff against Occidental for mishandling incidents of sexual violence, and she detailed issues with reporting and handling sexual assault on college campuses during her presentation at Lehigh.

Under Title IX, sexual harassment and discrimination are defined as acts that can create a hostile work environment or quid pro quo sexual harassment. An example of quid pro quo would be a professor giving a student an A on an assignment in exchange for a sexual relationship.

According to national data Heldman referenced, the likelihood of being sexually assaulted on a co-ed campus with co-ed residential halls is 4.9 percent. If this is applied to Lehigh’s student population, this would mean 132 students per year are likely to be victims of a sexual assault. Only five acts of sexual misconduct, however, were reported in 2014. Three were reported in 2013.

Heldman said the failure to report these crimes can be attributed to fear and self-blaming as well as a lack of knowledge on the process that follows when a report is filed. She noted institutions should have short and clear sexual misconduct policies. Lehigh’s policy is 30 pages long, and she recommended these policies be concise so students can easily understand them.

To encourage reporting, Heldman suggests survivors be offered more support, whether it is through living and classroom accommodations, academic accommodations or counseling and mental health support.

Brooke DeSipio, the director of the Office of Gender Violence Education and Support, said gender violence is one the most under-reported crimes on college campuses.

“Often times, survivors blame themselves,” DeSipio said. “They think they did something to cause it or could have prevented it in some way, but it is never a victim’s fault. It is always the person who is choosing to commit the instance of gender violence.”

Additionally, Heldman said more serious sanctions, such as expulsion or showing sexual violence on transcripts, be implemented against students who commit acts of sexual misconduct. She also believes victims can benefit from discussing their experiences with people they trust.

DeSipio also finds that victims are afraid that nobody will believe them and they will get in trouble for coming forward.

Karen Salvemini, the equal opportunity compliance coordinator, said victims of sexual assault experience a hesitation to report because of a fear of the experience.

“I think that it’s a product of the fear of what the process looks like, how many times they’re going to have tell their story, what’s going to happen and how many people are going to find out,” Salvemini said.

A separate policy for sexual misconduct exists at Lehigh. Under Lehigh’s policies, sexual assault includes any type of non-consensual sex. There are four types that are covered under this policy: rape and non-consensual oral sex, fondling/non-consensual touching, incest and statutory rape. Lehigh’s policy also protects those who are victim to sexual exploitation, stalking and dating or domestic violence.

“Sexual harassment would encompass all these sexual misconduct behaviors,” DeSipio said. “If someone is sexually assaulted on campus, it violates our sexual misconduct policy but it also creates a hostile work environment, so it can also violate our sexual harassment policy.”

Because some students do not know these policies, the Office of Gender Violence Education and Support have started to provide training programs on harassment procedures and resources to students groups at Lehigh.

So far, varsity athletic teams, fraternities and sororities have undergone the training. DeSipio hopes to move on to club sports next year and eventually reach every student club and organization on campus in the future.

Other efforts to educate students range from inviting large-scale speakers to passive campaigns, such as the April Sexual Assault Awareness Month poster campaign.

Last year, Don McFearson, a former football player and current advocate for preventing sexual assault, was brought to Lehigh to talk about the role men play in gender-based violence. Emily Linden, the founder of the Unslut Project, was also invited to talk about slut-shaming.

DeSipio said of the events the Office of Gender Violence Education and Support host are inspired by student discussions, so student involvement in the conversation about sexual misconduct is highly encouraged.

“The Slutwalk came out of students saying ‘We are seeing women being victim-blamed and slut-shamed after an assault. We need to do an event to address this,’” DeSipio said. “The Popcorn and Porn event – that was students asking ‘have you seen these awful face-f–king pornographies? It’s gender violence and we’re not talking about it.’”

Another resource for students who are sexually assaulted are Advocates, which are are specially trained staff members who support students who have been sexually assaulted. They are available on-call 24/7, 365 days a year.

“We are here to listen and hear your story, give you resources, direct you to good people to talk to, take you to the hospital or police station, and help navigate you through the processes,” Andrea Barker said.

Barker is a member of Lehigh’s Advocates, a group of staff and faculty members who are trained to assist survivors of gender violence.

The Office of Gender Violence Education and Support and the Office of Student Conduct are working closely to improve bystander intervention on Lehigh’s campus.

“Getting the message out there that this is unacceptable is primarily what we do, and we try to work on students being good interveners and bystanders,” said Chris Mulvihill, the assistant dean of student conduct and community expectations. “If you see something going on that is problematic, you should stop it.”

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