APR 28, 2016 1:53PM EDT
This piece is part of Not Your Fault, a Teen Vogue campaign that aims to educate people about the epidemic of sexual assault. For more on this series, click here.
Now that college acceptances have been given out, there’s a lot to think about before deciding where you’re going to spend the next four years: What’s the professor-to-student ratio? Is the food any good? Do people live on campus all four years? And, of course, how is campus safety — especially as it relates to sexual violence?
We’ve all heard the grim stats: One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted during their college years. While a school’s policies on sexual violence may not be something that you’d thought about when applying, they’re definitely worth adding to your decision-making criteria — both for your own well-being and safety, as well as for pushing the school to address any problems with how it handles sexual violence.
The recent “Unacceptable Acceptance Letters” campaign made this statement loud and clear through a video, which shows students opening acceptance letters filled with disturbing statements about the reality of campus rape, such as: “Prepare for a challenging year ahead which includes losing your virginity to a rapist.” It includes a call to action for accepted students to sign a petition demanding accountability.
So as you make the exciting, monumental decision about where you’re going to go to college, here are a few key questions to keep in mind.
How does the school educate students about its sexual violence policies?
Under Title IX, schools are required to address “hostile environments” created by sexual discrimination, violence, and harassment. Prevention education falls under this umbrella. The 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter from the Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights, which clarified schools’ obligations for dealing with sexual violence under Title IX, recommends that schools “implement preventive educational programs” and demands that they widely disseminate their grievance procedures. However, schools aren’t required to make their prevention programs mandatory.
According to a recent study by the University of New Hampshire’s Prevention Innovations Research Center, in order to really understand a school’s rules and policies and put them into practice, students need to be forced to “process and practice them.” In other words: Emailing an educational video around to the student body during orientation is not enough. For instance, if there is a required reading of the school’s policies, it should be followed by a facilitated discussion.
You should also check and see if the sexual violence prevention training the school provides is mandatory, and if any trainings are held beyond freshman year. “A lot of campuses just do [a prevention program] during orientation or that first week of school, when a lot of students are away from home for the very first time,” says Sharyn Potter, associate professor of sociology and co-director of UNH’s Prevention Innovations Research Center. “They’re trying to figure out how to buy books and how to get to classes, and to throw this message in, it’s going to be lost. I’d want to know how, when, where they’re doing [the prevention program], and is it mandatory?”
What is the school’s record?
Yes, it’s true that the Clery Act requires schools to report campus crime statistics, and those numbers are searchable through an online database. But keep in mind that those numbers are a small part of the story. The definition of “on campus” varies by institution, and the assault numbers included in that data are only cases that are reported to campus authorities.
“What we know is the majority of students who are sexually assaulted are going to disclose to a friend or roommate and not go to an authority,” Sharyn says. But it’s still worth researching a school to see if there have been any major cases and how they handled them. That can be as easy as doing an online search for the name of the school and “campus sexual assault” to see what comes up.
Will you get in trouble if you report an assault that occurred in an environment of underage drinking?
It’s important to know whether or not the school offers amnesty in these situations — meaning students breaking school rules, such as drinking while underage or taking drugs at the time of their assault, are immune from punishment for those offenses when they report.
What resources does the campus offer survivors, and how does the school handle perpetrators?
Obviously, the hope is that nothing happens while you’re on campus. But if it does, it’s good to know what the school offers in terms of support for survivors — both personally, and in moving forward with the adjudication process should they decide they’d like to pursue justice. According to SAFER, an organization that strengthens student-led movements to combat sexual violence, beyond fulfilling federally mandated Title IX requirements, good school policies include: Offering 24/7 crisis services every day of the school year, unlimited, free long-term counseling for survivors, and sexual assault response training for staff and faculty. (You can see its definition of a good college policy here.) You’ll want to see if you can easily find these resources on the school’s website.
Regarding perpetrators, other questions to consider include: Are the perpetrators expelled? Does the school enforce no-contact orders, so that the person who assaulted you can’t be in your dorm or in your class?
Also important: Gauge how open students, administrators, and staff are to your questions about sexual assault policies and prevention. Are they willing to talk about these issues? You’ll want to choose a school that listens to its current — and prospective! — students.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).