It’s a stark reality supported by recent research on American universities. About one in five female undergraduate students are sexually assaulted in college, and most of them know their attacker but don’t report the crime.
To confront that epidemic of sexual violence on campus, Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College are redoubling their efforts to improve student safety and shift campus culture to develop greater awareness of the problem.
School officials say they are working together to encourage more of their students to intervene when witnessing risky situations that could lead to an assault and create a safer environment where victims feel more secure coming forward after an attack.
“Everyone has a role,” said Jeane Erlenborn, a health promotion specialist at the junior college. “We want to create a climate where all students who come to campus learn that sexual assault is not accepted here.”
The initiative dovetails with the “It’s On Us” campaign launched by the Obama administration to end sexual assault on campus. Last week, SJRC students gathered around Frank Chong, the school’s president, as he signed a pledge in support of the national movement. Chong’s pledge, a paper strip, was stapled together to form a ring and linked to pledges signed by students, all of them forming a chain.
Sonoma State students were collecting similar pledges as part of a series of activities and events for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, held each April.
Activities and workshops focusing on sexual assault awareness and the services available to victims are planned at both campus throughout the month.
“We’re hoping to begin to change the culture, to talk more openly about sexual assault,” said Heather Fraser, a licensed clinical social worker who handles sexual assault and harassment investigations at SSU.
The campus joined hundreds of other universities around the nation in adopting the It’s On Us initiative. The campaign, which received more attention after Lady Gaga’s Oscar-night tribute to sexual assault survivors, is helping reach students through social media and celebrity videos.
“It really reaches out to students on campus,” Fraser said. And that includes men, who could be “powerful” in stepping in to prevent sexual assault, she said.
Such campaigns are important when it comes to building awareness and empowering victims to step forward and seek support, said Chris Castillo, executive director of Verity, which operates the county’s rape crisis center.
“The momentum is building,” she said. “For many years, people didn’t speak about sexual violence. People just went the other way. Now, people are being much more open about it.”
Verity provides support and services to students at both campuses, she said. The nonprofit plans to hold a series of events later this month to build awareness about sexual violence and help for victims.
Sonoma State received 25 reports of sexual misconduct, including dating violence, stalking and sexual assault, from August to February, according to Joyce Suzuki, the college’s Title IX coordinator. Title IX is part of federal education law that prohibits sex discrimination and sets procedures for how campuses ought to handle sexual harassment and sexual violence complaints.
Sonoma State had 10 sexual harassment complaints in the same period, Suzuki said. The complaints were from staff and faculty members as well students, she said.