Media, legislation brings sexual assault into national spotlight

Before President Donna E. Shalala created the President’s Campus Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention and Education in May, university services and student-led activism worked to raise awareness about sexual assault.

Services such as the Counseling Center combined with student organizations, such as No Zebras and Yellow Rose Society, have combated this nationwide issue. The Jameis Winston hearing, allegations against comedian Bill Cosby, and a Rolling Stone article about gang rape at the University of Virginia have called attention to sexual violence and its prevalence in college campuses.

The Miami Hurricane published the first story in this series Thursday that told the story of junior Angela Cameron who was sexually assaulted in April 2014 after a party near campus. Over a tumultuous weekend following her assault, Cameron counted on the Sexual Assault Resource Team’s (SART) hotline to counsel her through the effects of her rape.

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“I want others to come forward and realize that there are people who can help you. The SART hotline has been one of the most helpful resources,” Cameron said. “We are practically on a first-name basis by now.”

SART was founded in 1992 and includes a 24-hour hotline and outreach efforts, both of which are run by the Counseling Center and volunteer advocates.

Audrey Cleary, director of SART and a clinical psychologist in the Counseling Center, stresses that the blame never lies with the victim.

“There are many misconceptions about sexual assault. The first is that it doesn’t happen,” Cleary said. “There’s a different shame around sexual violence than any other crime. We try to justify and make sense of it, but end up victimizing the person instead. Any instance of violence is the fault of the person who committed the violence, not the victim.”

The Counseling Center set a 15-visit limit per student per year in October 2014. The center houses seven psychologists, two full-time contract therapists, three part-time psychiatrists and 10 doctoral-level interns, according to a Miami Hurricane story published in October. If a student needs additional support, such as biweekly sessions for severe illnesses or disorders, the Counseling Center will refer them to outside services.

Cameron was referred to a psychiatrist in the Counseling Center after she was sexually assaulted. The visit cost a steep $125, according to Cameron, because the center does not process certain health insurances. After some time, however, Cameron had to seek outside help.

“The Counseling Center refers you out if you’ve been raped. They don’t have the resources there,” Cameron said.

The Counseling Center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Whenever a student needs assistance outside of those office hours, the SART hotline is available 24 hours a day.


On-campus organizations offer support

In her “Listening to Shame” TED Talk in 2012, vulnerability and shame researcher Brené Brown explained how staying silent about a traumatic event only makes the victim feel worse.

“We have to talk about shame. It is a straightjacket. It’s an epidemic in our culture. If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment,” Brown said in her talk.

Student support groups such as No Zebras offer survivors and supporters alike an opportunity to speak freely about sexual assault and raise awareness in a community setting.

“The mission of our club is to educate the campus, as well as the surrounding Miami community, about sexual assault and sexual violence cases,” No Zebras President Brenna Riley said.

No Zebras was founded in 2002 and works with other organizations to host events such as “A Call To Men,” documentary screenings and self-defense classes.

A Call To Men is an organization dedicated to stopping violence against women by teaching men to change the social and cultural norms of what characterizes manhood. The organization hosted an event on campus Sept. 30.

“When zebras get attacked in the wild, they all stand around and watch, instead of helping. We don’t want any zebras on our campus,” member Rachel Korotkin said of the club’s name.

Senior Claire Kebodeaux joined No Zebras her last year and has helped the organization host events such as “Zebra Cake Socials” to spread awareness, self-defense classes and Tunnel of Oppression, a multisensory experience used to educate visitors on different forms of oppression.

“I’ve learned so much about assault, the effects it has and how to educate others about it,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed teaching other people about an issue that people don’t know about as much.”

For Riley, having No Zebras at UM events is a proactive measure as much as it is an educational one. The organization often used a six-foot-tall zebra to catch the attention of students passing by.

“Freshman females in their first semester of college are actually the most likely demographic in the United States to be sexually assaulted. That’s why we feel it is so important to educate on a college campus,” Riley said.

Another on-campus club speaking out against sexual violence is Yellow Rose Society, a women’s empowerment organization founded at UM in 2006.

“A lot of women have suffered and been through sexual assault, but we cannot allow ourselves to keep quiet and let it fester because we think we are alone. Remember that there is still a person there. Survivors are not broken,” said Phalande Jean, president of YRS.


Cases across the nation

Media coverage exploded when star FSU quarterback Jameis Winston was accused of raping a freshman student in December 2012. Just three weeks after police identified Winston, 20, as a suspect, the investigation was terminated, according to a report in the New York Times.

FSU allowed Winston to keep playing and he went on to win a Heisman Trophy in December 2013. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reopened its Title IX investigation of FSU in September and Winston was set to go to have a disciplinary hearing the week of Nov. 17, according to Florida State officials.

Winston’s hearing was rescheduled to Dec. 1, nearly two years after the offense was reported. The hearing terminated on Dec. 3, and FSU has up to 10 class days to give notification of the decision. Winston faces up to four violations of the university’s Student Code of Conduct, including sexual misconduct and endangerment.

See additional documents at the end of this story. // Courtesy

UM had its own brush with Title IX complaints when two football players, JaWand Blue and Alexander Figueroa, confessed to police that they drugged and raped a fellow student in July 2014. Unlike FSU, however, UM swiftly investigated the case and expelled both players.

Blue and Figueroa accepted a deal of completing a program for first-time sex offenders and 100 hours of community service in exchange for having sexual battery charges dropped against them.

“The environment at UM is different from the environment at FSU or at UF or even at FIU,” said Dean Tony Lake, associate dean of students and director of Judicial Affairs at UM, who serves as deputy Title IX coordinator. “The issue is the same, the way to address it might have some themes that are the same, but how to crack into that student culture and address the problem at its core is different from place to place.”

The most recent institution under fire is the University of Virginia. A Rolling Stone magazine article on Nov. 19 uncovered rampant gang rape taking place in the university’s fraternities, citing one incident involving seven fraternity brothers and a freshman, identified only as Jackie.

The issue was especially explosive because UVA assisted in revising the sexual assault policies of Virginia and the University of Oregon.

UVA President Teresa Sullivan responded to the backlash by issuing a zero-tolerance policy and suspending fraternities until the beginning of spring semester. This did not keep students from posting stories of their own experiences on the front door of the administrative building.

Rolling Stone then released a statement on Dec. 5 apologizing for the article after the Washington Post found several discrepancies in the Jackie’s allegations. According to the statement by Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana, journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely did not contact the alleged perpetrators.

“We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account,” the statement said.

Advocates fear the effect the media coverage will have on rape victims in the future, but Sullivan insists the apology will not detract from efforts to minimize campus rape and bring perpetrators to justice.

“Today’s news must not alter this focus,” Sullivan said in a statement on Dec. 5. “Our students, their safety and their well-being remain our top priority.”

According to women’s and gender studies professor Katharine Westaway, small discrepancies in Jackie’s story are consistent with experiences she has had with other rape victims. Westaway argued that the discrepancies do not cancel out Jackie’s account.

“The people who are questioning the veracity of the case likely don’t work closely with victims of sexual assault, like I do,” Westaway said. “The traumatized brain leaks information very slowly–not on command. It takes therapy and time.”

In reaction to the Rolling Stone story, Westaway recalled her own experience when she had been sexually assaulted. She said it is normal for Jackie to not remember exact details.

“I came out about my sexual assault 20 years after it happened. I couldn’t even name the person that did it to me,” said Westaway, who started Canes Consent, an annual on-campus event that empowers survivors to voice their stories. “I know my sexual assault happened, though.”

One prominent fallacy about sexual assault is that it is largely falsely reported, sometimes referred to as “crying rape.” The FBI found that rape is falsely reported 2-8 percent of the time – the same amount as other federal crimes.

Sexual assault has also taken a front seat in arenas other than education, with the accusations against comedian Bill Cosby. Nearly 20 women have come forward with their accounts of being drugged and forced into sex by Cosby, 77.

In light of the allegations, Netflix and NBC cancelled Cosby’s shows. Cosby was asked to resign from the board of trustees of several universities and had his title as honorary chief petty officer revoked by the U.S. Navy. Cosby denies the allegations made against him.

“I’m happy there is a zeitgeist about sexual assault stories happening,” Westaway said. “For a long time in our history, the media has been anti-victim.”


Sexual assault gains political prominence

Similar to the increased focus on sexual assault education and prevention on campus, the nation has seen an explosion of incidents involving sexual assault allegations.

Over the past few decades, the Jeanne Clery Act, Title IX, and the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act have pushed universities out of covertness and into transparency.

Title IX was passed as part of the 1972 Federal Education Amendments, prohibiting gender-based discrimination in educational institutions. The law prohibits gender-based violence such as sexual assault, sexual harassment and stalking.

The Clery Act was passed in 1990 after Jeanne Clery, 19, was raped, tortured and strangled in her dorm room at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The act obligates campuses to report violence on campus.

President Obama was lauded as the first American president to use the term “sexual violence” and bring gender violence to the forefront of the American consciousness.

“It threatens our families; it threatens our communities. Ultimately, it threatens the entire country. It tears apart the fabric of our communities. And that’s why we’re here today – because we have the power to do something about it as a government, as a nation,” Obama said at that launch of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault in January.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is another advocate trying to make a difference in Washington. Gillibrand created the bipartisan Campus Accountability and Safety Act to create new campus resources and support systems for survivors.

Under the Clery Act, colleges are required to publish an annual security report, keep a daily crime log and have an emergency notification network. Senator Gillibrand hopes to impose stiffer penalties for violations of the Clery Act.

If a university does not provide rights as outlined in Title IX and the Clery Act to students involved in cases of sexual violence, the U.S. Department of Education may open an investigation. The Department of Education is currently investigating 90 universities for violations of Title IX.

Among the schools in question are University of Southern California, University of Colorado at Boulder, Florida State University and Boston University.



Featured image of a spotlight courtesy Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Flickr.