Considering Sexual Assault When Choosing Colleges

Just a few hours ago, Angie Epifano, a former Amherst College student published an account (if that link is broken, try this) of her experience dealing with sexual assault while at the college. Her descriptions were unfortunately all but uncommon. The administration tried to brush the rape under the rug. Pretend it didn’t happen, that it wasn’t “really rape.”

Every time I told my dean that I didn’t feel safe on campus, that I wanted to be allowed to leave [to study abroad], or at least be put in a different dorm, I received the same unhelpful responses that I had received in February. They told me: You were lucky to be given a room here this summer in the first place, housing is tight right now and you really shouldn’t complain. All of your fear is ungrounded, Amherst is one of the safest places imaginable…

No college wants to look like Rape University. Who would want to send their child there?

The reality of the situation is that 1 in 4 women is sexually assaulted before graduating from college. Sexual assault is not just being jumped in alley and raped at gunpoint. Sexual assault includes rape, attempted rape, sexual violence, and sexual harassment. 95% of the time, the perpetrator is not a stranger to the victim but instead someone he or she knows. Rape is sex without consent. It is an act of violence where sex is the weapon. It doesn’t matter what the victim was wearing, what they were drinking, or what they were doing. If they didn’t consent to having sex, then they were raped. While rape only covers intercourse, sexual violence or assault is any unwanted sexual contact. Similarly, sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual advances. Again, the victim is never to blame in these situations no matter the circumstances.

Sexual assault is a risk for men as well as women. Five percent report being assaulted before graduating college. But likely, due to stigmatization, that number is far below reality.

Assault happens on every college campus no matter what you think. Amherst isn’t an exception. Assault happens at University of Notre Dame, Grove City College, University of Maryland, Swarthmore College, Harvard University, and any other college or university in the nation. The reported statistics do not tell the whole story. Colleges are incentivized to cover up reports of sexual assault.

Instead of looking at the numbers, take a look at what colleges do to support survivors of sexual assault. As you can tell from the Amherst student’s account, what a college can do (or not do) to support the survivor can mean the difference between moving forward and suffering through incredible amounts of pain, shame, and feelings of hopelessness.

So what exactly do you look for in a college? What questions should you be asking? Below is a list of 7 important criteria to consider when looking at colleges:

  1. Survivor Group Does the college offer a support group for survivors of sexual assault? Who runs the group? Administrator led groups are very different from student run groups. Groups led by administrators may have ulterior motives whereas those run by students are typically intended to serve as supportive spaces.
  2. Student Contact If there is a support group on campus, is there a student leader who you could contact to ask about how sexual assaults are dealt with on campus? Is there a difference between how survivors of assaults that took place on the college campus differs from those that took place off-campus? Don’t expect to get this information from a tour guide or the admissions office. Admissions offices wouldn’t want to divulge any information that would make their college seem less than perfect.
  3. Events Supporting Survivors Do events like the Clothesline Project take place on campus? Events like these again ensure that survivors have a voice in the college community.
  4. Disability Is post-traumatic stress disorder protected by the office of disabilities in the college? Are survivors of sexual assault entitled to accommodations under college policy? Accommodations could include medical leave without penalty or dorm reassignments.
  5. Prevention Programs Does the college have mandatory acquaintance sexual assault prevention programs? Is there mandatory education taking place to prevent sexual assault?
  6. Consequences for Perpetrators What disciplinary action do colleges take against perpetrators? The Amherst article cited that thieves are given 5 semesters of suspension while rapists are only given 4. While perpetrators are often given lighter sentences than the colleges mandate, the formal policies can say a lot about the college’s priorities.
  7. Counseling Services Are there free or low-cost counseling services on campus? Is there a maximum number of appointments? Is there anybody on-call after hours? Most importantly, is there anyone on staff who is specifically trained to deal with trauma?

This information is not meant to scare you, but rather to help you make an informed decision about your college search and selection. Sexual assault is not something that’s often talked about but is something that’s very important to think about during the college process.

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