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Sexual Assault On Campus Challenges Students


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR news. We'd like to turn now to something you or a student or a family you know might have been talking about lately - a lot of educators and officials seem to be talking a lot more about the subject lately. It's the issue of sexual violence on college campuses or involving college students.

The Department of Education recently released a list of 55 colleges and universities that they say are under investigation for mishandling sexual assault claims. The White House has also created a task force of educators, advocates and students to create strategies to deter sexual assault and to assist victims. We wanted to know whether these methods are resonating with students and whether they are actually relevant to the world these students are actually living in.

So we've called a group of young people who we know have been thinking about this issue and working on this issue at different campuses. They are Matthew Scott. He is a senior at George Washington University. He's the president of GW Students Against Sexual Assault. Welcome. Thanks for coming.

MATTHEW SCOTT: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Kate Parkinson-Morgan is a student at UCLA. She's also the digital managing editor of the Daily Bruin. That's the student newspaper where she's been covering the topic of sexual assault on campus. Kate, welcome to you. Thank you for coming as well.

KATE PARKINSON-MORGAN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Malik Washington is the executive director of The William Kellibrew Foundation. He's also a Men of Code facilitator. That's a mentorship program for teenage boys. He was also a residential adviser at Howard University where - from where he recently graduated, and he's been with us from time to time to talk about some of these issues before. Malik, thanks for coming back.


MARTIN: Also with us, Keena Smith. She is a senior at the University of New Hampshire, and she's also the outreach assistant for the school's Sexual Harassment And Rape Prevention program, or SHARP. Kena, welcome to you. Thank you for coming also.

KEENA SMITH: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And this is probably a good place to mention that the fact is this is a sensitive topic, and we are going to be talking about some things that might be difficult for some people to hear. So with that being said, I'm just going to start. Well, why don't I start with you, Keena? Just tell me how you got interested in the subject. Why did you start working on this?

SMITH: I actually started because of a friend of mine who was assaulted on a different campus. And I am a social work major, and they had an internship opportunity to work with SHARP. So I took the applicant training to run the crisis line, and I've been here for four years.

MARTIN: Been there ever since. And Matthew, also, what about you? You were mentioning that you and your roommate, your freshman year, were - are the only two men involved in this group on your campus. What got you interested in it?

SCOTT: We really were, and I became interested because my roommate was interested. And I think this - that this is an important issue to address. So that's definitely why I'm interested.

MARTIN: And Malik, what about you? Has this been a big issue for you in your time as a mentor, an advisor to young men and perhaps for you, yourself? You're a recent graduate.

WASHINGTON: Absolutely. I mean, victimization is a big part of our organization at WKF. But even as a RA, it was something that was whispered about and not necessarily talked in the open. And then I heard far too many stories of young women that I knew who were assaulted on campus and, often times, by people that they knew. So it's certainly very personal in that way.

MARTIN: And Kate, I'm going to ask you, as a reporter, how you got interested in this issue? I know here that, you know, the Justice Department data says that one in five women in college report having been a victim of sexual assault or an attempted assault. And I was just wondering what got you into - does that number resonate with you?

PARKINSON-MORGAN: It certainly does. About six months ago, a student activist on campus at UCLA reached out to me. She had about six survivors of sexual assault who wanted to speak to the university newspaper about their experience and where they felt wronged in the reporting process or if they didn't report it all because of the environment on campus.

MARTIN: And so - and was that the first time you have heard this because the activist came forward or what?

PARKINSON-MORGAN: Obviously, sexual violence has been an issue on campus for a very long time, but the student activist, you know, came and talked to me and said there are six survivors who really wanted to speak about their experiences, and they didn't feel like they were being heard by the university. So I reached out to them and talked to them for about six months about their experiences and recently published that article.

MARTIN: So briefly, Kate, I'm just going to - give me a couple of the scenarios that you reported on, if you would.

PARKINSON-MORGAN: Sure. A lot of the stories are very graphic, but one story I feel like I can share on the radio is the story of one woman who, freshman year, was assaulted twice on two different occasions by two different people. She was incapacitated at both times - meaning she was drunk to the point where she couldn't give consent, and that is considered rape under California Penal Code. It's a crime.

She reached out to our university counseling center to speak about how she was feeling - not explicitly about the assault. She was also homesick. She was a freshman. When she spoke about the assault and what had happened on that night of the second assault, her counselor responded, yeah, I can see how you would feel like a piece of trash after that. She told me she was too ashamed to go back for more help from the counseling center. She's still dealing with a lot of self-blame and guilt about the incident.

MARTIN: You know, Keena, your school, The University of New Hampshire, was one of the three that was invited to join this White House task force. What are some of the kinds of conversations that your school is going to be bringing to that? I mean, is that the experience that Kate just reported there? Is that something that people are saying has been common?

SMITH: A lot of our survivors come forward, and the number one date rape drug that we tell our students in UNH is alcohol and being incapacitated by alcohol. And so a lot of those stories do resonate with what we do see here on campus. And how we talk about that is we do a lot of programming in residence halls around what consent is.

And so just as she had said before, talking about the fact that if you are incapacitated by alcohol, you cannot give consent. And telling that to both male and female students and the LGBT plus - just making sure that everybody knows, like, what - how to have a safe and healthy relationship and what is consent and how to have healthy sexual relations with other students. So we do a lot of conversations around that and how to focus in on really reaching students, as you said before, in a realistic manner and telling them what that really looks like.

MARTIN: Matthew, what kinds of conversations - I'm particularly interested in what kinds of conversations the guys are having because I feel we've hear - we've been hearing from a lot of women who are coming forward with these very negative experiences, but what about some of the conversations you're having with young men? What are they talking about?

SCOTT: Well, I guess the difficulty is accessing the young man so they have those conversations in the first place. So they're few and far between to begin with. But when those conversations happen, it's more of that informational talk about yes, this is a sexual assault and yes, this is wrong. The trouble is really transferring knowledge into action.

MARTIN: Well, give me - tell me more about that. I mean, what are you saying, first of all? You're saying that it's hard to get young men to participate in these conversations?

SCOTT: Oh, definitely.

MARTIN: I mean, does GW require anything? Is there any kind of training or experience that's required for everybody to participate in?

SCOTT: GW doesn't have anything that's required. They do have the orientation program which has a skit about sexual assault that goes on for about five minutes, but that's within a cluster of a lot of other skits on a ton of other topics, as you can imagine.

MARTIN: Malik, what about you? What are some of the - what do some of the young guys talk to you about if they bring this up? Do you have to bring it up, generally? What - yeah.

WASHINGTON: Definitely. I mean, when we talk about sexual assault with young men, it's most often in the terms of the legal parameters. What could get them in trouble? What is considered sexual assault by the law? But unfortunately - and I think this is a little bit what Mike was alluded to...

MARTIN: Matthew.

WASHINGTON: Matthew, I'm sorry - is that we can talk about what sexual assault is, but there's a whole bunch of space that happens, things that happen before you even get to that point of knowing OK, this is sexual assault. So how do you actually put that into action? How do you actually tell young men and young women and let them know where they should draw the line? And so the personal responsibility piece, you know, we don't want - it's not just about telling women not to get drunk.

Unfortunately, too many people have used that as a way to blame victims, but we also have to tell young men to watch their alcohol intake and how much drugs they are using for the fear or the sake of them doing something that they may not even realize is wrong.

MARTIN: How do they feel about that? I mean, do they feel angry about that - that they feel like all the responsibility is on them now? Or how is that playing out because, you know, with young women, we hear a lot now about women not wanting to be blamed and slut shaming and not blaming the victim because I think for a long time the working social assumption has been if something bad happens to a girl, it's her fault. So there's been a lot of pushback against that. Are the young men saying it's gone too far, now everything's my fault?

WASHINGTON: I don't think that young men are angry, at least on my experiences. But they are a little confused and they want some more understanding. And I think that this is part of that misunderstanding that leads to a lot of the assaults in the first place - is that their bodies are not treated in the same way.

A lot of them don't understand how they can be in a situation in which they're both inebriated and the other person cannot give consent, but they can, even though they are drunk. So in some states, it's different. In some places, it's different, but that's not always the case. And so they have a lot of confusion about that, and I think that leads to them sometimes being in these situations.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about sexual assault on university campuses. The White House is making a new push on this. We are talking about this with a group of students or recent graduates and all of them are people who have worked on this issue or reported on this issue as students or advised on this issue. Matthew, what about that? Does - do the young - the people you're talking to, do they feel confused or what? How - what are some of the kinds of conversations you have around this?

SCOTT: Right. Well, we were trying to meet people where they are, especially when we're talking to men. When we are talk to men, I definitely want to sure to address masculinity. I was involved with a group called Men Can Stop Rape, and we had a Men of Strength club, similar to what Malik mentioned, the Men of Code club. And we talk about masculinity and its impacts on behavior, for instance. And so how certain things might be acceptable within certain settings is what we generally discuss.

MARTIN: Kena, is the main focus of education on your campus around consent and the importance of giving consent and getting consent? Do you feel like that's the main take away?

SCOTT: That's one thing, but we also want people to understand what sexual assault is.

MARTIN: OK, now what about you?

SMITH: Yes. That's part of what we do. We do programming around consent, around domestic violence, sexual violence, also around how the university views consent and how we can talk more about what alcohol and how alcohol affects your sexual relations while you're going out on campus. And I mean, specifically when...

MARTIN: And this is focused on both young men and young women and everybody?

SMITH: Yes, it's focused on both. Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: Can't I ask you this, Kena? And I apologize because I realize some people might be offended by the question, but I do have to ask. It's similar to the question I was asking Malik earlier.

Do you, as an advocate, do you ever feel a concern that by focusing on checking the behavior of young men, are you ever worried that this kind of releases young women from taking some responsibility for their behavior and protecting themselves and their friends, like, keeping each other safe and taking whatever steps they should take to stay safe? Do you see my...

SMITH: Personally, what we would like to focus on at SHARP, is when we talk about responsibility, we say the only person responsible for a sexual assault is the person perpetrating the sexual assault. And here at the University of New Hampshire, in our conduct policy, the way that it's written is that you have to seek and receive expressed consent, and the way that's drawn to make sure that there's no assumptions is the person who is initiating a sexual act, so it could be male or female.

MARTIN: How do you enforce that? I mean, how is that enforced, I mean, because typically aren't a lot of these incidents taking place - perhaps most - when people are alone, so together? So how do you enforce such a thing? I mean, how do you know who's telling the truth?

SMITH: I know, and that's why we have a conduct board. And that's if you're going through the University policy, and if you are going through criminally, we have forensic interviews where they ask people to tell their stories. And if you're going to the UNH conduct policy, one question that they will ask is when did you ask for consent or how did you ask? And what we hear a lot of is well, I assumed that since we were making out that this was OK, and we were going to have sex.

Or I assumed because someone let me into their room that we were going to have sex. So that's kind of how we break it down through our university policy of saying OK, well, did you ask? And it's not even the question of did you ask? It's more than that. It's saying did you ask and did you receive a verbal response back - so a yes or something more along those lines.

MARTIN: So, Kate, how are these new White House guidelines or this whole initiative - how is that going over? Have you had a chance to report on that? What reactions are you getting to this?

PARKINSON-MORGAN: Well, last time I spoke to our entitlement officer, she hadn't looked at the report. That was the day my story was published, and she was just about to look at the report. One of the things brought up in the report though is talking about a climate survey. There was a recommendation that all colleges survey their students, especially survivors, and ask them about their experiences and how they're feeling about reporting at the university whether they feel comfortable reporting at their university when they are assaulted. I think that's a really important recommendation brought up by the report.

You know, a lot of the people I spoke to were saying that they didn't feel like they could go to university administrators or university police and tell them about how they felt wronged. They didn't feel listened to. They didn't feel like they could talk about how they were affected by the insensitive comments they received, why they felt discouraged from reporting. So I think that is a really important part of that White House task report is surveying the students like our university paper did - reaching out to survivors, asking them what they feel like needs to be done, what needs to be changed and doing that on a regular this. I feel like that needs to be something that the universities start doing.

MARTIN: Well, let me ask all the people who are about to move on. I mean, Matthew, you've been working on this for some years now, right, and you're about to move on. What would you like to have happen at your campus after you go?

SCOTT: I wish it would happen today, to be honest, but I really would love mandatory education for all students, especially first year students since female freshmen are most at risk, statistically speaking. And then I also want to make sure that students know their resources and know where they can get help. Those are really the two key things that I'm thinking of.

MARTIN: Kena, what about you? What would you like? You're about to move on, too. And congratulations to my graduating seniors, congratulations for all you've done.


MARTIN: But, Kena, what about you - what would you like to have happen at your campus after you go?

SMITH: Well, luckily, we are just instituting our mandatory first year education for sexual assault that Matt was talking about. So that's going to start at the June orientation, so I'm glad that that's coming. So all incoming freshmen are going to be able to go through the training, but something I'd like to see is just, you know, a little bit more campus involvement. We do a lot on campus and I mean we have so many volunteers at our program, but I would love to see that even increase even more, so there's more of a response from our campus. And we do a lot of programming, but having more people get involved is just better for our campus and better for the cause.

MARTIN: Malik, what about you? You're a recent graduate. And you're still kind of keeping your hand in, though, as a mentor working with The William Kellibrew Foundation. What are some of the things you'd like to see happen, maybe as a result of the conversations that are going on now?

WASHINGTON: Right. I know what I'd like to see happening is already happening, and I know that specifically at Howard, they have a grant to provide this type of training to young men and incoming freshman about sexual assault. But I would really like to see things happen way before college even happens.

The same time we start talking to young men and women in high school about sex, they also need to be learning about sexual assault. And I know when I was there, I was not. And by the time they're in college, a lot of them have already begun certain sexual behaviors and habits that can be difficult to break. And so we need to start much earlier.

MARTIN: Kate, I'm going to be looking forward to more reporting from you on this topic, so I'm not going to ask you for an opinion, as my fellow journalist in the conversation.

PARKINSON-MORGAN: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Malik Washington is a recent graduate of Howard University where he was a residential advisor. He's now the executive director of The William Kellibrew Foundation. Matthew Scott is a senior graduating at George Washington University. He's the president of GW Students against Sexual Assault.

They were both here in Washington, D.C. Keena Smith is the outreach assistant for the Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention program at the University of New Hampshire. She was with us from the studio on that campus. And Kate Parkinson-Morgan is the digital managing editor at the UCLA student newspaper, The Daily Bruin, and she was kind enough to joining us from NPR West. Thank you all so much for joining us.


SCOTT: Thank you.

SMITH: Thank you.

WASHINGTON: thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.