Over Half of College Sexual Assaults Happen Between Orientation and Thanksgiving. Here’s How to Protect Survivors

More than half of sexual assaults on campus occur between orientation and Thanksgiving—but with the amount of new students on campus doubling as a result of COVID-19, these numbers risk being doubled as well.

Students during a talk on sexual assault and misconduct at the University of Michigan in February 2017. (Flickr)

It was November of 2015 when I told my cross-country coach I was sexually assaulted earlier that year. Back then, I thought I was the only one. One in four women are sexually assaulted on college campuses, but more than 50 percent of sexual assaults that happen on college campuses take place during the “Red Zone,” between August and November.

I felt unsafe. My running career suffered because I became more isolated and paranoid, which developed into depression, causing my mind and body to never be in sync. 

This year, many college first-year and sophomore students are going to campus after a period of mandatory isolation due to COVID-19. Not only has anxiety and depressive thoughts increased among students during this period, but both incoming classes will likely be on campus for the first time.

When I was a sophomore at Xavier University, I turned to my older teammates for support in my healing. It was my friends who encouraged me to use my university’s on-campus counseling services to understand the trauma I was coping with. As colleges prepare to focus on how to support students, in-person or remotely, we cannot ignore the issues that were there before COVID-19, including campus sexual violence

Beginning a new school year after a worldwide pandemic is not going to be easy for anyone —especially those who have suffered from sexual violence. As students possibly enter campus for the first time, it is important to understand the risk the Red Zone has on students. Students, especially first-years, are more likely to be sexually assaulted from the time of freshman orientation to Thanksgiving break.

Unfortunately, these numbers risk being doubled with so many new students coming to campuses this school year. Incoming freshman and sophomores haven’t been able to establish trusted social groups or gather the knowledge to navigate all the different aspects a college experience may bring. This might be their first year competing in club or collegiate sports, going to a party or joining Greek life. Some students may be far from home and have no family members or support system close by. The early college experience can be an isolating time, more so with the pandemic. 

I bring awareness to Red Zones because not only does it have the risk of affecting a student’s right to a fair education, but sexual violence and its impact carries throughout one’s life. In the wake of my trauma, I struggled to find support. Being a South Indian woman, mental health issues and gender-based violence are rarely discussed. Due to my upbringing, silence seemed like the easiest route to healing. I didn’t tell my family or close friends, so my shift in behavior seemed unexplainable. The violence itself is traumatizing, but so is societal culture that exists in the aftermath.

Additionally, the role I held as a NCAA student-athlete made me believe there was no excuse for poor performance. My mental and physical health were deteriorating, along with an eating disorder stemming from the shame I carried to push away the memory of being violated.

With campus awareness and mental health support, we as students, faculty, family and community can reclaim Red Zones. Universities must take extra measures to implement consistent Title IX education and bystander intervention training for students and faculty to understand the behavior that violates a university handbook. Reporting methods must be easy to find and confidential resources such as hall directors, student mentors and staff must form trustworthy relationships with new students to ensure they are supported, and more importantly, not alone.

My college experience was similar to many others, but it did not define me. I turned to advocacy work, writing and joining organizations like End Rape On Campus and Every Voice Coalition to protect survivor rights under Title IX because completing my degree is why I attended college. It is my vision, that every student has an education that is free from discrimination on the basis of sex—where students can find their voice, their power and become the person they thrive to be.

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Devi Jags is a freelance writer and MFA Creative nonfiction candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. She has written for Teen Vogue, Bon Appétit, Elite Daily, and much more. Devi is also the marketing & sales director of Chatty Monks Brewing and the co-founder of Sambar Kitchen. You can follow more of her work @devijags or www.devijags.com.