Combatting Campus Sexual Assault

Young women are being targeted for sexual assault on campus—and Westchester colleges are taking action.

Ten years ago, Kathleen Bonistall of White Plains received the horrific news that no parent should ever have to hear: Her daughter Lindsey, a sophomore at the University of Delaware, had been brutally raped and murdered. 

Unfortunately, Lindsey’s case is not all that unusual. In fact, the statistics are staggering—and scary. A 2007 report funded by the Department of Justice (DOJ) found that one in five women are targets of attempted or completed sexual assault in college, as are one in 16 men (usually by other men), with sexual assault defined as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” This includes sexual intercourse, sodomy, fondling, and attempted rape. Other DOJ statistics are less harrowing, including a December 2014 report that found the rate of sexual assault among college-aged females to be considerably lower, 4.3 victims per 1,000. Still, it’s an issue that’s gaining the public’s attention and outrage.

“No college is exempt from campus sexual assault, whether Ivy League, big, or small,” says Bonistall. “And it doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter your ethnic or racial background, financial status, sexual preference, or who your parents are,” she adds.

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The course was led by Steve Kardian, a nationally recognized expert in self defense and women’s safety.

Why Has Campus Sexual Assault Become Such a Hot Topic?

In 2005, Bonistall helped found PEACE OUTside Campus: The Lindsey M. Bonistall Foundation, in the hopes of preventing another family from having to suffer a similar tragedy. She says she’s finally sensing some significant movement on the issue. Indeed, in early July, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the “Enough is Enough” legislation to combat sexual assault on campuses. The law requires New York State colleges and universities to adopt a uniform set of comprehensive procedures and guidelines, including a uniform definition of affirmative consent, or a so-called “yes means yes” standard, for engaging in sexual activity. “In the beginning, it was so slow-moving because college administrations didn’t want to expose what was happening on their campuses,” Bonistall says. But with the establishment in January 2014 of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, “the issue’s been given credence, and politicians are getting on-board. So we’re starting to gain momentum on the things that we’ve been fighting for.” She also notes the DOJ awarding a $2.3 million grant in 2013 to establish a new National Center for Campus Public Safety as another encouraging step in the right direction. But while federal legislation compels colleges to record the number of sexual assaults reported in their annual security reports to the Department of Education (DOE), a US Senate survey showed that a whopping 40 percent of colleges reported zero sexual assaults in 2012. 

The Hunting Ground, a documentary on the subject that first screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January, has also ramped up attention on the topic, as have the efforts of survivors/activists Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, whom the documentary profiles. The pair found a new way to use Title IX, formerly only interpreted as mandating equal athletic opportunities on campus for both genders, to assert that colleges were not offering safe environments for women to pursue their higher education. They and their organization, End Rape on Campus (EROC), have successfully helped student activists across the country file scores of Title IX cases. More than 90 colleges and universities are currently under federal investigation for their handling of sexual-assault complaints. And then there’s Columbia University graduate Emma Sulkowicz, who carried a mattress around campus between fall 2014 and her graduation in May 2015 to protest the way her report of sexual assault to Columbia was handled. 

Why Is It So Underreported?

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Lindsey Bonistall’s rape and murder was a random act of violence, but DOJ studies show that approximately 90 percent of assaults are committed by an acquaintance of the victim. 

“It’s not just someone jumping out from behind a bush,” says Iona College Vice Provost for Student Life Charlie Carlson. “Violation usually comes from someone you placed trust in. That’s why it’s so traumatic,” he adds. “It shakes people to the core and affects whole college campuses, so it really warrants the government giving this so much emphasis.” Yet DOJ findings indicate up to 80 percent of sexual attacks still go unreported on college campuses. Why? “Women don’t want to be re-assaulted by colleges talking down to them and protecting their brands by underreporting their stats,” says Bonistall. “Plus there’s the peer pressure and judgment, especially when the assailant is known to the victim. It actually takes a lot of courage to report a sexual assault.” Steve Kardian of Thornwood, a former police sergeant and nationally recognized expert in this field, adds: “If they’ve been drinking, victims may feel that no one would believe them or that the assault was their fault.” Other reasons, says Kardian, include not wanting someone  responsible to get kicked out of school or being the center of attention. 

Why Are College Students at Such Great Risk?

The DOJ notes that in the time between a student’s first day on campus and Thanksgiving—a period referred to as “the red zone” in The Hunting Ground—freshmen women are more vulnerable for sexual assault than at any other time in their lives. “Why? They’re a little too young, a little too trusting, and haven’t yet developed tools to deal with a predator two or three years older,” explains Kardian. “Taken from the safety of their home community, they’re overly trusting.” Adds Ernie Palmieri, vice president of student affairs at SUNY Purchase College, “Especially in the first six weeks, students are trying to fit in. They’re new to the environment and somewhat naïve. That’s why we try to do as many educational programs on this topic as possible during orientation and Welcome Week.” 

An eye-opening experiment Kardian conducted at Pace University in Pleasantville about 10 years ago illustrates just how trusting college students can be. While dressed down with a backpack, he waved down eight cars driven by female students within a three-hour period and was able to talk himself into all eight cars, using a ruse that he was lost and needed to find his sister, who was sick in a dorm. Kardian first watched the students walk to the parking lot. If they were talking on the phone, reading notes, or just enjoying a beautiful day—“soft targets”—he waved their cars down when they left the lot. If they were walking with purpose or assertively—“hard targets”—he didn’t approach them.

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Adding alcohol, drugs, and heavy partying to the mix further exacerbates one’s risk. According to White House data, 58 percent of incapacitated rapes and 28 percent of all rapes occur at campus parties. “In the majority of cases I’ve been aware of, there is alcohol involved,” says Dina Nunziato, director of counseling and psychological services at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. “I’m not suggesting for a moment that we blame the victim—an alleged victim who is intoxicated doesn’t relieve the perpetrator of responsibility,” she adds. “If incapacitated, impaired, or intoxicated, a student is unable to give consent legally.” And while some victims were drinking underage, notes Iona’s Carlson, “there’s an amnesty program in place for underage drinking in those cases.” 

What Can Be Done to Reduce This Risk?

“That our college students are at such a high risk is unacceptable,” says Bonistall. “This huge number needs to change—and the only way that’s going to happen is through education and empowerment.” The local colleges we spoke with are addressing the issue in a variety of ways including workshops, presentations, and classes that address decision-making, self-defense, and standing up for others. Among other measures, Purchase College requires incoming freshmen to take an online course on alcohol and drugs, with a special section related to their link to sexual assault; just two years ago, sexual assault was not addressed in this course in any significant way. Iona College also has a mandatory online sexual-assault program for new students along with an alcohol-education program and now has a mandatory two-hour sexual assault seminar during Welcome Week that includes bystander intervention training. Similarly, Sarah Lawrence addresses the issue on several levels, through hanging of hundreds of “What to Do If You’ve Been Sexually Assaulted” posters on campus and through Date Safe Project presentations and a mandatory online Consent & Respect course for incoming students. All schools also have detailed information on the subject on their websites. 

And now more high schools are also addressing the topic. Kardian has been presenting his Girls On Guard workshop, a mix of hands-on self-defense techniques and practical information, in county high schools for 20 years. But he saw a spike in interest when Lauren Spierer of Edgemont, a sophomore at Indiana University, disappeared four years ago after a night of heavy partying near campus. This March, Kardian brought his program to Eastchester High School’s senior girls—senior boys attended another on good decision-making. “We wanted to help prepare them to deal with not just the academic but other challenges of college or wherever they were going,” says Eastchester High School Principal Jeffrey Capuano, “and to minimize their risk of danger by making the right choices in the situations they might face. We wanted them to go in with open eyes.” 

Of course, it’s not just up to the schools to prepare students to face the challenges they may experience on campus. “Parents need to talk to their students—male, female, or transgender,” says Dina Nunziato of Sarah Lawrence. “Educate them to communicate what they are comfortable with sexually and to think about where their boundaries are. If something feels uncomfortable, empower them with the language to say, ‘we need to stop,’ and practice that until it becomes part of their skill set.” 

And if the worst-case scenario does unfold? “Don’t think if you do get in an uncomfortable situation that it is ever your fault,” says Sarah Nechamkin of Harrison, a sophomore at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. “You have the right to go out to a party and not feel at risk, and if you are put in that situation, try to reach out to friends and professionals who can help,” she says. “And make sure that in any kind of relationship, the other person is treating you with the respect you deserve.”

The best advice, says Carlson, “is to remember everything they learned about safety when they were growing up, like to avoid situations where there could be possible dangers. And if you meet someone for the first time, you probably don’t want to go to a secluded spot with them.” Adds Bonistall, “It’s the same things we’ve been teaching them since kindergarten: Stay in groups, hold hands, and all the basic rules that can help minimize risk.”

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