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“I had been working a while, maybe an hour or so, when I became aware of the sound of breathing behind me. A man was standing there, watching me type on the laptop. He had been there for quite some time,” wrote a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student in the university’s newspaper, the Tech.
Concern about the victimization of female college students has grown in this country since 1990, according to the Sexual Victimization of College Women report by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). The rising awareness of sexual victimization has displaced the ideal of college campuses as ivory towers for the new fear that campuses have become “hot spots for criminal activity,” the report said.
Awareness about this topic began to grow with the passing of the Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act of 1990. This act forced any college that was participating in a federal student aid programs to publish and distribute to its students and employees an annual report containing security policies and campus crime statistics for the university, the NIJ and BJS report said.
The Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights was added to the act in 1992. The federal law requires that the victim has the right to change their academic schedule and their residence hall, according to James Ferrier, Associate Director of Public Safety at Northeastern University.
" Now often times the woman says ‘Wait a minute, he’s the one who did it. He’s the one who should move or he’s the one who should have his schedule changed. Why should my life be changed? Why should I move out from out of my circle of friends and move somewhere else?’ The answer there is clear, it’s a due process issue. At that point, the perpetrator hasn’t been found responsible of anything, he’s innocent until proven guilty. Just on an accusation, it would violate that person’s rights of due process,” Ferrier said.
Many studies have been done since the act was passed in 1990 to collect the statistics of sexual assault on college campuses.
“The statistics that are used are 35 out of 1,000 college-age women will raped each academic year. On a campus with 10,000 students, that’s 350 a year,” said Sarah Dawgert, Public Education and Volunteer Coordinator at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC).
“One out of six or one out of ten is a victim of sexual assault during her college career.
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“Their numbers we can assume are low because many people don’t report to anyone. But the numbers that we use are taken from things like well-known or respected surveys that we can better assume people are reporting what happened versus a police report. On college campuses, the numbers they publish are how many rapes happened on campus that are based on police reports and based on ones that are founded to have actually happened according to them. Certainly this doesn’t mean that there are other ones that they investigate and don’t find enough evidence for, but they can’t really say that those don’t happen. There’s no way to know that,” Dawgert said.
“If you build your credit based on that kind of research, you have to look at the questions on those type of surveys," said Ferrier. "Often times those questions are something like ‘have you ever been touched on a private part of your body without your consent?’ If you ask that question, then I think one out of ten college students will say yes. But that could be being pinched in the subway or being bear hugged by a friend. If that question results in researchers saying its sexual assault, then its not really what it means to a casual reader who says, ‘Oh my gosh, there have been an awful lot of sexual assaults on campuses’ so you really have to look at definitions.”
According to Massachusetts General Law, rape is defined as being “sexual intercourse” or “unnatural sexual intercourse” with a person without consent, by force, or by threat of bodily injury. The penalty in Massachusetts is up to 20 years in prison.
A ccording to the NIJ and BJS report, 95 percent of sexual assaults of college students are not reported to the police.
“It’s surely the most underreported crime in the country,” Ferrier said.
The number of sexual assaults reported by the Northeastern University Police Department (NUPD) was four in 2000 and seven in both 2001 and 2002. According to Ferrier, the NUPD is very prepared to handle sexual assault cases.
“We’ll actually go out looking for them and say ‘Do you realize you have some rights and services available or let us help you report it to the other police department where it happened.’ Because we are so proactive about that, we deal with approximately 10 to 15 cases a year in various ranges of sexual assault,” Ferrier said.
Some people are critical of the discrepancies between the numbers college police departments report and the statistics reported by government studies.
“Institutions of higher learning nationwide routinely overlook and under-report incidents of campus sexual violence, each fearing that admitting the actual frequency of sexual assault on its campus will result in consequences to its reputation,” an article by the Greater Boston National Organization for Women (NOW) said, “Each year, hundreds of U.S. universities report zero campus sexual assaults. Common knowledge and actual experience among students and administrators belie these statistics.”
“It’s in the best interest of colleges and universities to project the image that their campus is safe. The majority of assaults are acquaintance rape on the college campus. Most women don’t feel like they’ve been raped,” said Nina Selvaggio, Co-President of Massachusetts NOW. She said that there are other factors at work as well, but underreporting happens frequently.
“Campuses have inter-university systems. It doesn’t carry any criminal weight or prosecute the perpetrator,” Selvaggio said.
“Universities have a reputation to uphold. They want people to come to their campuses. If people knew there were rapes happening on campus, they would be less likely to go. Although we know that it’s happening on every campus, so its not like if one has lower numbers than another, it necessarily means that there’s less incidents happening,” Dawgert said.
“I don’t think that Northeastern covers it up. I think that very few people come forward at all so the statistics end up looking so incredibly small that people think that clearly cannot be an accurate number of what’s happening. But I think its just an accurate number of those that are reported to the police,” Laura Weiss said, the Coordinator of Sexual Assault Services at Northeastern University.
Sexual Assault Units
Every police department is required to have a unit that is specifically trained to handle sexual assaults, according to the General Laws of Massachusetts.
The NUPD has 15 trained officers “so that ensures us that almost all the time, 24 hours a day, around the clock, every day of the week we have at least one of those officers on duty,” Ferrier said.
“They have a lot of training. They really put the survivors emotional and physical well being ahead of anything else. I think they do a good job. I’ve heard some really good things from outside communities at how Northeastern handles it,” Weiss said.
The NUPD also deals with prevention of sexual assaults on campus. “There are programs that are part of freshman orientation to educate, to know the risks of sexual assault. There are many programs through the residential life staff that they present to the residential halls,” Ferrier said.
“They make it pretty safe. I feel decently educated,” freshman Rachel Brown said.
“There is no shortage of knowledge on the part of most campus women when they’re sober about that issue. If you were to pull first semester freshmen women when they’re sober into a classroom and say what are the two or three things you can do to prevent yourself from being the victim of sexual assault on campus, I would be very surprised if freshmen women couldn’t come up with three or four important things,” Ferrier said.
The problem is when students start drinking. “One beer, half a beer, and your judgment affects your memory and your inhibition,” Ferrier said.
“Virtually all of the sexual assaults, rapes, attempted rapes are behind closed doors, in his room or her room, they both went willingly together, they’re known to each other, there was alcohol involved usually by both of them, she’s usually a freshman. The typical circumstances,” Ferrier said.
“This concept of the mugger jumping out of the bush and mugging the college women are extraordinarily rare. Those are the highest reported ones, when those happen, they get reported. And they’re extraordinarily rare,” Ferrier said.
“There are some strides being made. At Northeastern now they’ve hired Laura Weiss at the Counseling and Wellness Center,” Dawgert said.
“But there’s a lot of work to be done. And for universities and institutions, its hard to do and its hard to want to admit that it happens on their campus because, of course, no one wants that happening in our communities. But it happens. We need to be honest about that. And for the community to support survivors and to believe them. The first reaction should be to believe the survivor and not think that they’re lying,” Dawgert said.
“Although my initial contact with the MIT people who found me after the attack was exactly what I needed and more, I wasn’t always taken seriously or treated with enough sensitivity by people at MIT. Many organizations in Boston and Cambridge are, in my opinion, more capable of dealing with such a trauma. Sometimes I wish I could have worked more with MIT people, if only to combat the belief that rape doesn’t happen here,” the MIT student wrote.