A California College Hopes to Model Best Sexual Assault Policies

 My rapist was already on probation for sexually assaulting another woman when I  reported him.  He had admitted to sexually assaulting her and was simply put on probation.”   — survivor story, Occidental College’s OSAC website

The trigger warning preceding the Survivor Stories section on the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition (OSAC) website cautions readers that entries contain “experiences with sexual assault and/or violence that may be triggering to survivors and others.” What it doesn’t warn you of is the level of rage these stories trigger when placed in the context of ineffective campus policies, such as the one that put an admitted attacker on probation, thus allowing him to assault another student.

Addressing the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses is an urgent issue nationwide. During the past month, sexual assaults made headlines at Dean College in Franklin, Mass., Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Mo., at Harrisburg Area Community College in Pennsylvania and at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

An ongoing news investigation continues into whether a string of sexual assaults were improperly handled at Amherst. The college remains in the spotlight after a male sexual assault victim committed suicide, and a female student posted a 5, 000 word account of her rape and the troubling response of administrators online.

Meanwhile, students at Emory University remain on guard after counseling sessions revealed an unusually high number of sexual assaults. Although counselors are required by law to report the assaults to police, the students chose not to press charges. In each case at Emory, the attacker was an acquaintance.

A study published in the Journal of American College Health reveals that 19 percent of undergraduate females report experiencing attempted or completed sexual assaults; in other terms, sexual violence affects one in five women on college campuses. Statistics compiled by the American Association of University Women suggest that 90 percent of sexually assaulted women know their attacker, and a Department of Justice report reveals that fewer than five percent of completed and attempted sexual assaults are reported to authorities. The same report concludes that “a college that has 10,000 female students could experience more than 350 rapes a year—a finding with serious policy implications for college administrators.”

Members of OSAC at Occidental College, a small liberal arts college in Los Angeles, are championing a new program for improving sexual assault policies at the institutional level. Designed through intensive collaboration between students and faculty, the program helps colleges reform their policies by offering prevention and response strategies–a model for other campuses to follow.

The Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition formed after complaints from survivors about campus policies surrounding sexual assault. Studying Occidental’s campus assault policies uncovered flaws that may be present at many other colleges, including the use of victim-blaming language, lack of transparency in decision-making and cases overseen by untrained board members. The coalition created an evaluation tool that compares policies at different campuses, developed more than 80 “promising practices” and offered thorough recommendations for improving safety.

Caroline Heldman, a professor of politics at Occidental and a frequent Ms. magazine and Ms. Blog contributor, involved with OSAC said,

Faculty-student collaboration is crucial. It’s been my experience that administrators are often glad to help students and make them feel powerful, but the fact is students have little power to make significant change to college policies and procedures because they come and go every four years. Faculty are often at institutions for decades and have power to see changes through.

OSAC has developed a website with downloadable resources for assault victims and an option to anonymously report sexual assaults. It has also organized direct action through a march pushing 12 demands, which the college agreed to last month. Another tactic? Filing student complaints with the Office of Civil Rights if administrators fail to implement the steps to which they agreed.

Senior Audrey Logan, a student member of OSAC, said,

Before college I never really thought about sexual assault–it’s easy to ignore statistics and numbers. Survivors’ stories give faces to the issues and paint realistic pictures of what rape actually looks like and the pain of recovering from assault.

Reflecting on her involvement in OSAC, Logan recognizes the potential not just to improve safety on her campus, but across the country:

Seeing the impact possible from a small group of passionate students and faculty has shown me that change really is possible within collegiate institutions.

Photo courtesy of J.D. Gregory via Creative Commons 2.0


Nina M. Flores is an educator and activist living in Southern California. Her writing and research explores connections between gender, empowerment, education, and the politics of community development. Follow her on twitter: @bellhookedme.