There are a lot of moments on college campuses that will live with students forever. The first time they stepped into their dorm room, their first party surrounded by a group of people they would soon call friends, or the first time they earned a passing grade on a college level exam. There is laughter, new clothes, late night food trips, and a freedom of being on your own for the first time. College is a time for firsts.
It should not be a first time for sexual assault.
Nevertheless, statistics show that college is the time and place in which an individual is most likely to be involved in some form of sexual violence. According to RAINN, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the nation, women in college ages 18-24 are three times as likely to be sexually assaulted as women not in college within the same age group according to RAINN.
Oglethorpe University has recognized the issue of the prevalence of sexual assault and has taken action to prevent and combat it, as well as offer programs for recovery and rehabilitation. Under the supervision of Dean of Students, Michelle Hall, Oglethorpe became one of the first independent colleges within Georgia to implement a bystander intervention program.
This program was implemented nearly four years ago as what is called Green Dot – a nationally recognized program that takes all scenarios with a red dot situation where sexual misconduct could occur and turns them into green dot situations where individuals can intervene.
While this program worked well across the nation, it was overwhelmingly expensive and required constant training, to the point where the university was struggling to get consistent involvement. In 2016, Shane Pruitt, director of student engagement and leadership, researched other bystander programs and discovered Step Up, a program that focuses on smaller, more frequent training modules and peer-to-peer leadership.
“Peers listen to peers more than they listen to the Deans telling them not to do certain behavior,” said Dean Palder, assistant Dean of students.
In addition to the Step Up program, Oglethorpe created its own groups that overlap and reinforce the information from the national initiative and apply it specifically to the university.
One of these is the Healthy Campus Task Force. This group of students, staff, faculty, and members of the community focus on creating better living styles on campus, whether through discussing eating disorders or ways to intervene in potential sexually violent situations. The task force partners with the Georgia Independent College Association, GICA, who provides a grant to conduct programs centered around sexual assault prevention.
The other is the Sexual Assault Response Team, SART, which constantly evaluates and re-evaluates Oglethorpe’s policies, procedures, and partnerships. They meet with members of the community to ensure that the university is as tight and comprehensive as possible. Both of these groups meet a minimum of twice a semester and have placed Oglethorpe “ahead of the curve” when it comes to proactively addressing sexual assault, according to Dean Palder.
The university’s reactive programs are striving towards success, too. Despite the progress of bystander intervention and assault prevention programs, 23.1 percent of women and 5.4 percent of men experience rape or sexual assault in undergraduate college. It will take years of enforced preventative measures to counteract these statistics. Which is why the campus has taken time to cultivate positive rehabilitation and recovery initiatives.
“The most important thing with someone who’s experienced any of the prohibited conduct in our policy is to make sure they're okay,” said Dean Hall. Her fifteen plus years of experience handling sexual assault situations has allowed her to bring forth programs to help affected parties.
The ACLU estimates that 95 percent of sexual assault cases go unreported for reasons ranging from the lack of education surrounding what consent and assault mean to a victim being afraid to come forth, according to a report by the Center of for Public Integrity. Indeed, the process of reporting an assault can seem daunting, but Dean Hall has worked with other faculty and staff on campus to ensure that each affected individual feel “empowered to make choices.”
In a sexual assault case, there are two parties: the complainant, who is filing the charges, and the respondent, who is being charged. As part of Oglethorpe’s policy, each of these parties is assigned an advocate – a faculty or staff member on campus who serves as a support system through the process. In tandem with GICA and the bystander training, Dean Hall has cultivated advocate training for all personnel on campus.
The university partners with the counseling center to offer rehabilitation. The center runs throughout the school year and regularly offers free short-term problem focus counseling to students. They focus on helping students work through the things that could be hindering them from achieving at their best possible level in school.
“We cater to each student’s clinical needs. It’s a case by case basis, and we consider all sorts of factors,” said the Director of Counseling Services, Dr. Claire Fuller.
In recent years, though, the counseling center has become a direct resource for those affected by sexual assault. Dean Hall has focused on giving victims choices about whether they want to press charges, and if so when. The counseling center expands upon that freedom of choice as it gives those affected another source for healing.
“A common trauma reaction is self-blame,” said Dr. Fuller. “We’re hoping we help students move to a place of realizing that it’s not their fault.”
The university also offers off-campus therapy opportunities through its partnership with the Day League, formerly known as the Dekalb Rape Crisis Center. It’s a non-profit organization within Dekalb county that offers group counseling with others who have been affected by sexual assault. For students, this provides an opportunity to get off campus and recognize that they are not alone in their experiences.
Oglethorpe University is continually striving to combat the issue of sexual assault on college campuses and provide a narrative of positive change.
“I’m super proud that I work for a school that is looked to as people who are ahead of the curve,” said Dean Palder. “I’m not claiming that we’re perfect, but under the guidance of Dean Hall, we really have been thoughtful about our policies.”
By implementing these programs and continuing an open discussion, Oglethorpe hopes to keep the college firsts strictly positive. With the help of students, that first dorm room will stay a dorm room, not a scene for evidence, and that first party will be nothing more than a good place for dancing.