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Conference Takes Aim At Sexual Crimes On College Campuses

Sexual assaults on college campuses are making troubling headlines nationwide. This week, about 700 university officials from all over the country are gathering at Dartmouth to brainstorm ways to make schools safer for their students.

Dartmouth President and alumnus Philip Hanlon started the Dartmouth Summit on Sexual Assaultwith an admission that, much as he loves his job, there can be some terrible moments.

“It’s learning that a student has been assaulted or harmed,” a somber Hanlon told the audience. “It is the reality that on any campus, on any given day, the president might receive such a message. It’s the difficulty of sitting with a student who has survived an assault and the parents of that student, and seeing in their eyes that their lives will never be the same.”

There were 24 forced sexual assaults reported in 2012 at Dartmouth. Many more have likely gone unreported, victim advocates say. The College now has a new policy that threatens mandatory expulsion for “egregious” assaults, which are now investigated by independent analysts. And there is a new Center for Community Action and Prevention.

Dartmouth is not the only institution plagued by these crimes. David Lisak researches interpersonal violence and provides consulting services to the U.S. Military and many universities.

“And so it pains me to count higher education as among those institutions with a claim to moral authority and moral education that has failed to meet its own self-proclaimed standards,” Lisak said.

Lisak says colleges and universities should collect and share more data — often called climate surveys — about students’ experiences on campuses. (Dartmouth plans to conduct a survey next year.)  Lisak also urges administrators to heed increasingly militant students who complain about sexual assault or harassment. He believes schools should remove barriers that make victims reluctant to report sex crimes, and he wants institutions that have been too complacent to apologize for past failures to act against campus aggression.

Sitting in the back of the auditorium, Michele Beaulieux applauded loudly. She was raped at the University of Chicago many years ago.

“We know the statistic that the majority of rapes are not reported. I am what that looks like,” she said quietly, during a break in the lectures.

But even though she never pressed charges for the 1979 rape, she recently mustered the courage to reveal it. That statistic is included in the 2012 crime report for the University of Chicago.

While the audience for this conference includes mostly college officials, not students, Beaulieux hopes it will spur change at all levels.

“Government advocates and university people all working together in these working groups is valuable. We need to talk and understand and figure out next steps and no group can do it in isolation” she said.

One conference panel showed powerful, pervasive advertising media that portray women as acceptable sexual prey. “It’s ubiquitous,” one speaker said. But educators, he added, have an obligation to show young people how to reject those stereotypes — or face consequences. Federal agencies represented at the conference say they will sue colleges or withhold federal funds if they do not take steps to curb sexual violence.

Dartmouth is among 55 schools under Title IX investigation by the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. But the College says it is already taking steps to address the problem, and vows to step up its vigilance.

Conference participants will form working groups to craft specific prevention strategies to take back to their institutions. 

One increasingly popular program enlists bystanders to stop unwanted sexual behavior before it turns into violence. What’s needed now, administrators say, are reliable data that show how effective those interventions are. And when a crime does takes place, advocates say colleges need to forge better working relationships with local law enforcers, so that perpetrators will be prosecuted, and victims will not be shamed or blamed.  

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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