Sexual assaults up at area colleges, but experts say it’s because of better reporting

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on Jan. 9, 2017.

NORTON – As advocacy against sexual assault has risen to the fore of social causes, colleges across the nation are getting flack for the mishandling of sexual misconduct in their schools.

A quick glance at data suggests campuses across the state saw a significant jump in reported sexual assault cases in 2015.

But a rise in reported cases might not mean exactly what it suggests, advocates say. Instead, it may be a sign that years of relentless advocacy and education encouraging victims to speak out has finally paid off.

“We’re trying to make it a topic that’s not so secretive to talk about on campus,” said Marie Palermo, director of education at New Hope, an Attleboro-based domestic and sexual violence agency.

New Hope works with colleges to provide training on sexual assault response and prevention.

Locally, Wheaton College and Bridgewater State University both saw significantly more reported sexual assault cases in 2015.

Within three years, the number of reported cases at Wheaton almost tripled, data from the college showed. In 2013, three sexual assaults were reported. By 2014, the college saw seven cases of sexual assault, and in 2015 that number doubled to 14 cases.

Bridgewater State University saw an even greater increase – and had the highest number of reported attacks of any state university in Massachusetts in 2015. The university saw three cases of sexual assault in 2013, five in 2014 and 18 in 2015.

The data is mandated and regulated under the federal Clery Act after a college student was raped and murdered in 1986. Colleges are required to report crime statistics annually to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Post-secondary Education Campus Safety and Security.

But while the increase in reported assaults is shocking, Wheaton Dean of Students Kate Kenny said, she believes the numbers reflect enhanced training and education, rather than an increase in the number of sexual assaults, themselves. New programs promoting a wider understanding of sexual assaults have made students more comfortable reporting crimes, Kenny said.

“Wheaton has been working on this since 2011,” Kenny said, after a letter from the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights called sexual assaults an epidemic on college campuses and charged universities with more preventative action.

Kenny said virtually every Wheaton student goes through some form of sexual assault training, starting with first-year orientation and continuing on with resident assistants and athletes.

“It’s an ongoing effort to try and educate our students,” she said. “How do we help people understand a situation when they’re trying to make these decisions in a split-second?”

The campus explores clear definitions of what sexual assault looks like and started a bystander training program to enable students to help their peers as well, giving them tips on when or where they should step in.

And, the college unveiled a mobile application that allows students to access resources and file a complaint quickly and anonymously.

“It’s opened up some reporting options,” Kenny said. “For some students, being anonymous is important. For some reason there’s this fear that because everyone knows everyone, it’ll get out there. That’s not really the reality, but sometime’s it’s the perception.

“Even if we have a little bit of information, it’s something we can follow up on.”

But even after a student comes forward with a potential case, Kenny said it’s important to ensure they feel comfortable.

After 2011, the college removed students from a disciplinary board used to hear misconduct cases and replaced them with faculty trained in Title IX standards.

“It helps them have confidence in the process,” she said.

And, Wheaton established the Coordinated Community Response Team in 2013 to look more closely at how to improve their programs and assist students. The campus works closely with New Hope in that area.

“We want to make sure they know there’s somebody they can talk to,” Palermo said.

Her focus also revolves around the definition of sexual assault.

“Sometimes people don’t know,” she said.

“Rape is very clear, but other forms of sexual assault aren’t,” Executive Director Marcia Szymanski added. “We’re helping people to understand that sexual assault is a broad range of things.”

Palermo and Szymanski also credited the jump in reported assaults to a shift in the social climate at Wheaton, thanks to increased training and education.

“I think people are more comfortable coming forward,” Palermo said. “I think the collaboration we have with Wheaton is wonderful for both parties. To educate staff and students on campus on what to do, as well as reach out and provide another avenue of support.”

But, while they’re happy more students are coming forward, both Wheaton and New Hope admitted there is still progress to be made.

“This is something unfortunately where, no matter what happens, this will be an ongoing process,” Kenny said. “But we have high expectations in our community on how these things are handled when they are reported.”

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