Help Us Change How Colleges Act On Sexual Assault

The issue of sexual assault on college campuses -- primarily, but not exclusively, affecting women -- is a national problem, as indicated by President Obama's creation of a Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The problem stretches far beyond college campuses.
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'Brown University is located in Providence, Rhode Island, and a member of the Ivy League.More Rhode Island Images'
'Brown University is located in Providence, Rhode Island, and a member of the Ivy League.More Rhode Island Images'

I always knew I wanted to donate to Brown, to give back to a place that has given me so much.

But many of my friends and I feel sickened by the university's repeated mishandling of incidents of sexual assault, highlighted recently by the case of Lena Sclove, violently sexually assaulted by a classmate who received only a year-long suspension as punishment. When organizers of the senior gift -- a 100-year old tradition of senior fundraising at Brown -- asked for my donation, I and others found we could not give in good faith.

And so, on Friday May 16th, a group of us launched the Gift for a Sexual Assault-Free Campus in Honor of the Class of 2014, in order to fund real, meaningful action on sexual assault prevention and response at Brown. Empowered in part by the education that we have received here, we want to show our university that its failure to provide a learning environment that ensures the safety of its students is a violation of those students' rights. We call on our fellow students to join us and to set an example for colleges across the country.

In the 1990s, Brown University students began speaking out about this issue, which had plagued the campus for decades, demanding changes to the sexual assault policies in the student code of conduct. The university ignored them, even when they began writing the names of their assailants on bathroom walls. In the mid-2000s, students again demanded changes to the student code of conduct, and went even further: They gathered resources themselves for post-assault counseling and established a survivor support group and sexual assault resource center, only to see their efforts wither after they graduated.

The time has come for Brown students to step up again.

Brown's most effective sexual assault prevention initiatives currently suffer from a severe lack of funding: The sexual assault advocacy coordinator is tasked with more work than one employee could ever handle; the Sexual Assault Peer Educators Program only has enough funding to run a single annual training session on bystander intervention. Brown's therapists are overworked to the point that students often have to wait for more than two weeks to be seen. Perhaps most worrying, the names of assailants are back on the bathroom walls.

Following a community and student outcry over the University's mishandling of Sclove's case, Brown's President Christina Paxson promised reforms. She promised to make changes to the student code of conduct around sexual assault reporting and adjudication. She promised to hire a Title IX coordinator to oversee and coordinate sexual assault prevention efforts. She promised a Task Force on Sexual Assault, to provide recommendations for further action.

These promises were not enough.We have heard them before from the university's administrators, and we have seen how little they accomplish.

This is why activists at Brown are calling on students to join us in making the University do better. If our goal is truly to end sexual assault, students across the nation must show our universities that we are ready to share the burden of responsibility in taking meaningful action.

The Gift for a Sexual Assault-Free Campus is a step in the right direction, a step we hope will inspire many more. The funds we raise will support peer education programs, training on trauma sensitivity to university staff and to campus therapists working with survivors and outreach to community organizations already doing incredible work across the City of Providence. We will bolster the capacity of existing institutions and shed light on an issue that is still, regrettably, shrouded in darkness. Most importantly, a student-led advisory board determine the fund's spending, ensuring that desperately needed resources will be channeled to the programs doing the most good for students.

The University has responded to our actions. President Paxson has personally pledged $2,500 to the fund. Senior class contributions to Brown's annual fund made in honor of sexual assault prevention will be matched two-to-one by the University to the Gift for a Sexual Assault-Free Campus, up to $10,000 of university donations. We hope the president will prioritize the continued funding of these programs made possible by this gift in the 2015-2016 academic year and beyond. If the administration does not take up this opportunity to be a national leader in the full funding for sexual assault prevention, we are confident that future classes of seniors will forego the traditional senior gift in order to raise the necessary funds.

In the future, we hope to do even more. Instead of narrowly focusing on sexual assault as the problem, we must look to the root causes of such violence. Both sexual assault and our colleges and universities' responses to it are products of systemic patriarchy embedded in our institutions of higher education, and our society as a whole. It is this system that, ultimately, we must work to reshape. In the meantime, we can look to alumni, to parents, to faculty and to staff for support in solving an issue that affects not just survivors, but everyone in our society. We can tap into networks of activists working on this issue across campuses, across the world.

Brown University's woefully ineffective disciplinary procedures for sexual assault are not unique. The fact that the University underfunds campus programs for sexual assault prevention and post-assault counseling and advocacy is not news. The issue of sexual assault on college campuses -- primarily, but not exclusively, affecting women -- is a national problem, as indicated by President Obama's creation of a Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault (their website, designed to aid survivors of sexual assault and university administrators, is The problem stretches far beyond college campuses -- but the fact that women in college can face a higher risk of assault than their unenrolled counterparts makes our campuses a crucial battleground for sexual assault prevention.

Survivors of sexual assault are often blamed, implicitly or explicitly, for the crimes committed against them. Our nation's most prestigious ivy-covered institutions regularly allow assailants to return to campus to complete their studies, not only threatening the mental and emotional well-being of those they have attacked, but also putting other students at risk of future assault.

Given the demonstrable economic benefits of a college education, such a situation directly imperils not only Title IX's promise of equal access to education, but also our nation's broader commitment to gender equality.

Our battle for the present, though, is sexual assault -- and it is by no means a small one. But together, we can imagine a world in which there is zero rape.

And it starts with a simple gift.

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