Rise in sexual assault violations at William and Mary may be a good sign

aheymann@vagazette.com

Sexual assault reports have been on the rise over the past few years at the College of William and Mary, and this may be a good sign, said Kiersten Boyce, the chief compliance officer and Title IX coordinator for the college.

Boyce said the rise in reports was something she predicted and, in some ways,, something she wanted to happen. In 2010-2011, Boyce said the student affairs professionals at William and Mary knew there was sexual misconduct going on, but students were not reporting it. Over the last few years, Boyce said they have worked to change that.

In 2014, college President Taylor Reveley created the Task Force on Preventing Sexual Assault & Harassment to help combat sexual violence on campus. The task force launched the college’s first sexual misconduct climate survey that same year, with the results coming out in 2015. In 2015, 24 students reported a Title IX violation; in 2016, 79 students reported; and in 2017, 140 students reported an incident. A Title IX violation can be gender discrimination, sexual harassment or violence, retaliation, such as treating someone poorly or unfairly because of an accusation, and a hostile environment, like bullying or abuse. Over half of reports made each year concerned sexual assault or harassment.

“(The result) just shows success in our institutional efforts,” Boyce said. “I’m sure it is not just William and Mary. Just look at how much more aware society is on these issues. We do not take credit for that, that just rather something else that happened that impacts students willing to come forward and share information.”

While Boyce said she expected to see results rise over the first few years, if that continues, it will indicate a problem.

“The general statistics are very similar to national data,” said Mayanthi Jayawardena, William and Mary's sexual violence prevention specialist. “That said, at the end of the day we want to do what we can to prevent this from happening.”

Boyce is optimistic about next year’s survey results and said based on the number of reports they have received so far this year, she expects the statistics to level out or even go down slightly in 2018.

The big three initiatives the college has taken to get students to report incidents, according to Boyce, include increasing awareness, telling students how to report incidents and creating a sexual violence website.

One way the school raises awareness is through new-student orientations, Boyce said. But even after freshman year, Jayawardena added, the college holds workshops for students to find out more about how to prevent and report sexual assaults. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and Jayawardena said William and Mary has events and workshops planned.

“We try to offer as many opportunities throughout the year — throughout their years — to continue to increase not only their knowledge but also their skills,” Jayawardena said.

Boyce said the most noticeable effort to give students the information they need to report incidents has been putting up fliers in all campus bathroom stalls. Each sheet lists resources where students can report incidents. Boyce said the sexual violence website the college created also helps The website has information on how to report an incident, so students can easily Google the information rather than trying to remember something they heard about in freshman orientation three years ago.

Reporting an assault

Students have options on how to report sexual assault and harassment. If students want to pursue criminal prosecution against the offender, they must report the harassment to the police. However, students can report to the police and internally through the university.

Overall, William and Mary students don’t have a negative view of reporting incidents to campus police according to Boyce. She credits this in part to the school’s police chief, Deborah Cheesebro. Cheesebro has made sure all of her officers go through training on how to work with victims of assault, such as having trauma-informed intake interviews, to avoid re-traumatizing a victim who has just endured an assault.

“(The campus police) have protocols to make sure they are addressing the human needs of students, and connecting them with campus resources,” Boyce said. “My sense is students have a healthier view of the campus police … maybe three to four years ago there had been some indication of negative views, some negative experience they’d had, but I think with all of the chief’s efforts that is really not the case now.”

Jayawardena said if a professor or resident adviser in the dorm suspects a Title IX violation, they are required to report it to campus police.

A resource for those affected by sexual violence is the Haven, a confidential peer-based resource center. The Haven exists to connect students with resources to help them down the path of healing and recovery. The Haven even has a back entrance, so students don’t have to feel like they have to walk in front of a lot of people to get to it.

Jayawardena said students who work at the Haven receive 40 hours of initial training, followed by periodic workshops to keep their knowledge up to date. While these students are not meant to act as counselors, they are able to help set up the right connections to give victims the help they need.

Once a report of an act of sexual violence is made, Boyce said a review committee is required to look over the report and see what disciplinary and/or legal actions should be taken within 72 hours of it being made. The group decides whether the report should be forwarded to a prosecutor. If the case warrants it, campus police forward it.

What the survey said

Boyce said the results of the survey backed up what she had believed to be happening on campus, such as the way alcohol affects the rate of assault. In the survey, 79.7 percent of physical sexual violence perpetrators and 80.9 percent of victims drank alcohol.

“This survey confirms that many people on college campuses, including William and Mary, do experience some form of harassment, stalking, dating or domestic violence, assault, and that being aware of that can help you help yourself or a friend,” Boyce said.

Ginger Ambler, vice president for student affairs, said she thought the survey results were important because they informed the college on what issues are particular to their campus. She said this makes sure their response work can target the specific needs of students.

On campus 64.9 percent of all students — 71 percent of women, 44 percent of men and 67 percent of those who identify as non-binary students — have experienced harassment since being enrolled.

The next highest rate was physical sexual violence, which was experienced by 20.9 percent of the total student population — 22 percent of female students and 6 percent of male students. Interpersonal and domestic violence was reported by 20.4 percent of students — 14 percent of women and 10 percent of men.

Students belonging to a fraternity or sorority made up a majority of the sexual misconduct victims.

While sorority and fraternity members made up 43 percent of the total respondents, they accounted for 55 percent of the sexual harassment reports, 59 percent of stalking reports, 57 percent of interpersonal/domestic violence reports, 67.3 percent of physical sexual violence reports, and 66 percent of reports of non-physical sexual violence reports. Sorority and fraternity members also had a higher rate of suspecting friends were victims or perpetrators of sexual violence.

“Fraternity men and sorority women face sexual violence at rates higher than other students, or non-affiliated students which is consistent data from the last time we administered our climate survey,” Ambler said. “As a result, we have been working really closely with our sorority and fraternity communities over the last several years.”

In 2015, William and Mary created the Fraternity/Sorority Life Task Force on Sexual Assault & Harassment Prevention. This organization has sub-committees and education liaisons who teach at the sorority or fraternity chapter level. Jayawardena said she meets every other week with these committees to see what training and education are needed.

“There is significant commitment on behalf of the student community to embrace awareness around (sexual violence,)” Ambler said.

Resources

You can read the 2017 sexual assault climate survey’s executive summary online at wm.edu. To find out how to file a sexual assault or harassment incident, go to wm.edu/sites/sexualviolence/file-report/. Find out more about the Haven at wm.edu/offices/thehaven/.

You can read the state’s policy on how campuses are required to deal with sexual violence reports on laws.LIS.virginia.gov. This procedure is under title 23.1, chapter8, section 23.1-806.

Amelia Heymann can be reached by email at aheymann@dailypress.com, or on twitter @HeymannAmelia.

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