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Spencer Rendahl: Campus Sexual Assault

New Hampshire democratic representative Annie McLane Kuster said in a speech on the floor of the U.S. House last week that she’d been assaulted three times as a young woman, including once 40 years ago “on a cold winter night at a prestigious college campus.” At the time, Kuster didn’t name the college – but later confirmed through her spokeswoman that Dartmouth was where the physical assault with sexual connotations took place. She’d been a member of the class of ’78 - Dartmouth’s third class to admit women.

In her speech, Kuster said “I was an 18-year-old student. I was going to a dance. The dance was at a fraternity, and I intended to enjoy the evening with my friends.” Kuster said that she and her friends “enjoyed the party until one young man assaulted me in a crude and insulting way, and I ran alone into the cold, dark night. I have never forgotten that night. I was filled with shame, regret, humiliation while he was egged on by everyone at that party standing by.”

Kuster spoke up to give support to the rape victim of a Stanford University swimmer whose six-month jail sentence sparked national outrage.

Almost 20 years later, I, too, learned about sexual assault as an undergrad at Dartmouth – though thankfully not as directly as Representative Kuster. One of my freshman roommates had an older brother who was on the football team and belonged to a fraternity. His younger sister told us that he had serious concerns for her safety. Rumors of sexual assaults periodically swirled around campus, and “Take Back the Night” protesters marched down Fraternity Row.

And still, sexual assault on college campuses continues to be an issue today – with more than 6,700 forcible sex offenses reported in 2014, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. 146 institutions of higher learning,
including Dartmouth, have faced Title IX investigations for sexual assaults.

New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is a 1988 Dartmouth alumna. She writes in the capital hill publication, Roll Call, that she's sponsoring legislation to address the problem that colleges currently have an incentive to stay quiet about sexual assaults. Gillibrand’s Campus Accountability and Safety Act proposes a national survey to ask students about the campus sexual assault climate at their school.

The data would be made public and could help prospective students make informed choices about which college to attend, as well as help advocates lobby for change – and for sunlight to replace the darkness of secrecy.

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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