Media Center

2012 column image: 
2012 column title: 

Preventing Sexual Assault on College Campuses

2012 column date: 
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
2012 column text: 
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen

As students pursue this fall semester on our college campuses, it is important to be aware of the risk of sexual assault. The American Association of University Women reports that up to one in four women experience unwanted sexual intercourse while attending college in the United States, and that one in twelve college men admit to acts that meet the legal definition of rape. [1]

 

Institutions of higher learning can and should help to prevent sexual assault on campus. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has launched a new initiative to do just that, with an interactive on-line program called “Tonight” that is now required viewing for all first year students. The innovative program, accessible to the public on the University Health Services website at http://www.uhs.wisc.edu/tonight/, takes students through different vignettes in order to help them identify red flags for potential sexual assault and dating violence scenarios that they may encounter on campus. It identifies risk factors, such as alcohol use, which a recent survey of students at 171 institutions of higher learning found to be involved in 74% of all sexual assaults.[2] The program also tackles commonly held misperceptions, such as the belief that most rapes are perpetrated by strangers. In fact, studies show that 90% of college rape victims know the person who sexually assaulted or raped them.

 

One of the best components of the program is the heavy emphasis on “bystander education” for all students – men and women – to let them know that they have a responsibility to watch out for circumstances that have the potential to lead to an assault. The “Tonight” program provides students with several realistic options for stepping in to interrupt potentially dangerous situations. It provides local resources, features the voices of real-life victims of campus sexual assault, and sends a clear message to potential perpetrators that taking advantage of intoxicated victims is wrong and will not be tolerated.

 

We hope that with colleges raising awareness through programs like “Tonight” that more victims of sexual violence may receive the support and resources they need, and that more perpetrators will be held accountable for their actions. The National Institute of Justice reports that right now as many as 95 % of sexual assaults on campuses go unreported,[3] with victims often encountering institutional barriers then withdrawing or transferring to different schools while perpetrators go unpunished. [4] Developing ongoing training for faculty and staff and establishing protocols that include solid partnerships with community service providers can go a long way to ensuring that when a victim comes forward, he or she is immediately met with a supportive and respectful response.

 

At the Wisconsin Department of Justice, we support all victims of sexual violence and strive to make sure that the criminal justice system response to college campus sexual assault is supportive of the victims and effective in holding offenders accountable.

 

DOJ's Office of Crime Victim Services (OCVS) helps victims understand their rights and access the assistance they deserve. The OCVS also provides federal and state grant money to domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy centers throughout the state to ensure that victims receive the community support they need. Through our Violence Against Women Resource Prosecutor (VAWRP) project, the Department of Justice provides ongoing technical assistance to help local district attorneys' offices investigate and successfully prosecute sexual violence on college campuses using best practices and collaborative community models.

 

Wisconsin is home to many reputable colleges and universities whose goal is to create a safe and secure learning environment for all who attend. Effectively addressing sexual violence with students, faculty, and staff is critical to achieving that goal. We should commend UW-Madison for implementing the “Tonight” program, and we should encourage all of our colleges and universities to communicate similar messages to incoming students.

 


[1]American Association of University Women, “Sexual Assault on Campus: Statistics, Facts and Figures” Available at http://www.aauw.org/act/laf/library/assault_stats.cfm

[2] Center for Public Integrity, “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice," (2009). Available at http://www.publicintegrity.org/investigations/campus_assault/

[3] Fisher, Bonnie S., Francis T. Cullen, and Michael G. Turner. (2000). The sexual victimization of college women. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice. Available at www.ncjrs.org/pdffiles1/nij/182369.pdf.

[4] Center for Public Integrity, “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice," (2009). Available at http://www.publicintegrity.org/investigations/campus_assault/