It’s a stark reality supported by recent research on American universities. About one in five female undergraduate students are sexually assaulted in college, and most of them know their attacker but don’t report the crime.
To confront that epidemic of sexual violence on campus, Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College are redoubling their efforts to improve student safety and shift campus culture to develop greater awareness of the problem.
School officials say they are working together to encourage more of their students to intervene when witnessing risky situations that could lead to an assault and create a safer environment where victims feel more secure coming forward after an attack.
“Everyone has a role,” said Jeane Erlenborn, a health promotion specialist at the junior college. “We want to create a climate where all students who come to campus learn that sexual assault is not accepted here.”
The initiative dovetails with the “It’s On Us” campaign launched by the Obama administration to end sexual assault on campus. Last week, SJRC students gathered around Frank Chong, the school’s president, as he signed a pledge in support of the national movement. Chong’s pledge, a paper strip, was stapled together to form a ring and linked to pledges signed by students, all of them forming a chain.
Sonoma State students were collecting similar pledges as part of a series of activities and events for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, held each April.
Activities and workshops focusing on sexual assault awareness and the services available to victims are planned at both campus throughout the month.
“We’re hoping to begin to change the culture, to talk more openly about sexual assault,” said Heather Fraser, a licensed clinical social worker who handles sexual assault and harassment investigations at SSU.
The campus joined hundreds of other universities around the nation in adopting the It’s On Us initiative. The campaign, which received more attention after Lady Gaga’s Oscar-night tribute to sexual assault survivors, is helping reach students through social media and celebrity videos.
“It really reaches out to students on campus,” Fraser said. And that includes men, who could be “powerful” in stepping in to prevent sexual assault, she said.
Such campaigns are important when it comes to building awareness and empowering victims to step forward and seek support, said Chris Castillo, executive director of Verity, which operates the county’s rape crisis center.
“The momentum is building,” she said. “For many years, people didn’t speak about sexual violence. People just went the other way. Now, people are being much more open about it.”
Verity provides support and services to students at both campuses, she said. The nonprofit plans to hold a series of events later this month to build awareness about sexual violence and help for victims.
Sonoma State received 25 reports of sexual misconduct, including dating violence, stalking and sexual assault, from August to February, according to Joyce Suzuki, the college’s Title IX coordinator. Title IX is part of federal education law that prohibits sex discrimination and sets procedures for how campuses ought to handle sexual harassment and sexual violence complaints.
Sonoma State had 10 sexual harassment complaints in the same period, Suzuki said. The complaints were from staff and faculty members as well students, she said.
The number of such reports and complaints is up at the campus, and Suziki linked the rise to the greater spotlight being shone on sexual violence.
“It doesn’t mean that it’s happening more,” she said. “It’s being reported more.”
And that’s a good thing, she added, because it allows the campus to investigate and hold perpetrators accountable.
At the junior college last semester, a female student reported being raped inside a campus bathroom by a masked man, which lead to increased patrols by police and an analysis of campus security and safety measures. The incident remains under investigation and no arrests have been reported.
“That was a horrific event,” said Erlenborn, the SRJC health specialist. But, she added, “That kind of sexual assault is rare on this campus.”
Of the 18 cases the junior college has handled since last July, nearly all have been off campus and involved individuals who knew each other, said Patie Weg-man, a sexual assault investigator and dean of student conduct at the junior college. Regardless of whether they happen on or off campus, she said the college follows through on the reports.
“(We) complete timely investigations and issue sanctions against those found in violation of our college policies on sexual misconduct,” she said in an email.
Wegman said the junior college can provide “interim remedies” for students who come forward in such cases. That includes changing classes, providing safety escorts and, in more serious cases, removing the accused person or people, she said.
This week, the college will be interviewing for a full-time investigator-trainer to be part of a team that handles gender discrimination, sexual violence and harassment complaints.
“This position is a testament to SRJC’s commitment to prevention education and timely investigation of reports of sexual misconduct,” Wegman said.
To register for classes, students at both schools must complete an orientation that covers sexual assault prevention.
But officials say the greatest gains in curbing such violence and harassment come from student-led events and efforts by student clubs and groups.
“I love talking to students about consent, risk reduction, and bystander intervention, but let’s face it — I’m a 50-something college administrator,” Wegman said.
“Student-to-student education is more powerful than anything I can say,” she said.