Colleges Need to End the Culture of Silence Around Sexual Assault

We recognize and support those difficult dialogues because we know that a college is a place to be critically engaged, and not a place to be shrouded in secrecy and despair.
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The response by college administrations to sexual assault and sexual violence on campuses across the United States has historically been weak, slow and largely self-serving. Responses such as that by Penn State, Florida University and Columbia University have often seemed to be directed more at maintaining the reputation of the institution rather than the well being of the victims and by extension the safety of the student body. The inevitable consequence of an environment with a dearth of support for survivors of campus sexual violence is an erosion of faith in the system and higher tolerance for shame, guilt, and overall victim blaming. Last year's release by the Education Department of a list of fifty-five schools who were being investigated for complaints surrounding the handling of sexual assault allegations seems to be evidence of a shift in federal policy towards providing more direction and oversight to a higher education system that is generally unable or reluctant to effectively regulate itself.

In spite of the disturbing national trends, there are some bright spots from which we can draw inspiration. It may be surprising to some that Catholic institutions, who may be assumed to be very conservative by virtue of their religious affiliation, have been some of the more proactive in providing preventative educational programming. Such is the case at The University of Scranton and Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It is integral to the Catholic identity of these institutions to acknowledge the care for the whole person and in doing so to recognize the students' lived experiences. Both schools saw the need to provide frank facilitated discussions among first year students during their first few weeks on campus in an effort to begin a continuing dialogue and awareness of the matters of consent, effective communication, and the role that alcohol and other drugs play in the realm of interpersonal violence. The Royal PACT program at the University of Scranton and the Marywood PACT program, which was modeled after Scranton's, seek to do just that. These mandatory programs, facilitated by students, empower first year students with the knowledge and skills to foster a campus community that is safe, healthy and free from violence and threats. These programs enjoy the full support and encouragement of the administrations of both institutions where they are viewed as both educational and preventative endeavors.

The culture of silence around sexual assault thrives in darkness and denial. Rather than diminishing the problem, silence breeds the perception that it is ok to do these horrendous acts to fellow community members. What people learn in those circumstances is that a person who perpetrates an act of violence will get away with it and the person who experiences it will be left to pick up the pieces on his or her own.

Thankfully, both the University of Scranton and Marywood are forces against this sort of thinking. It is important that we all remember that campus sexual violence is not a "big school" problem nor urban problem alone. The disturbing but widely accepted statistic is that one in five of college-aged women in the United States will experience something that meets the definition of sexual assault during her academic career. The University of Scranton has long ago committed to shattering this silence. Marywood University has also been a tireless advocate for frank communication and education to ensure that students have to skills and knowledge to create a safe and vibrant learning community. We recognize and support those difficult dialogues because we know that a college is a place to be critically engaged, and not a place to be shrouded in secrecy and despair.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Take Back the Night in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about Take Back the Night and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.

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