Newspaper Op-Eds


Reality of assaults on campus
Getting Real about Sexual Assault on Campus

Peyton R. Helm
President, Muhlenberg College
Published by philly.com
May 16, 2014

Sexual assault is too serious a matter to treat as political theater. The Obama administration and some student activists are castigating colleges for not preventing sexual assault and not following up appropriately when it occurs. Voices on the right claim that the (mostly) young men accused of sexual assault are being denied fundamental rights.

Both sides claim that colleges try to sweep sexual-assault cases under the rug to protect institutional reputations. As the president of a small, private liberal arts college, who must rule on sexual-assault cases when they reach the final appeal stage in our judicial process, I know how traumatic these cases are for all parties concerned. I also know that sexual assault on campus is more complicated than the current public debate acknowledges.

Let's get real about what is occurring. When first-year students arrive on campus, about 70 percent of them are already sexually active and 78 percent are accustomed to consuming alcohol. More than 95 percent of sexual-assault claims involve acquaintances and more than 90 percent are linked to alcohol abuse by the perpetrator, the victim, or both. Most sexual assaults involve first-year students, for whom the combination of newly acquired independence, hormones, experimentation with mind-altering substances, a desire to make friends, assumptions that a hook-up culture is the norm, inexperience in communicating clearly about sexual intentions, and naivete about the importance of consent can lead to tragic consequences.

What can institutions do to prevent sexual assault? Here are a few strategies Muhlenberg has deployed, though we know there is no silver bullet:

All first-year students must complete an online course on alcohol abuse, and a second one on sexual-assault prevention;

Freshman orientation includes a session on "sex and excess," on the links between alcohol and drug abuse and sexual assault, and mandatory follow-up classes reiterate these themes and cover the college's sexual-misconduct policy and judicial process;

Programs on bystander intervention and sexual-assault prevention are sponsored by the athletic department and the Greek life office;

Campus safety officers offer rape-aggression defense classes and peer health advocates educate students about sexual consent.

These programs consistently convey our college's fundamental conviction that every person has sovereignty over his or her own body, and that clear, knowing, and voluntary consent is an essential prerequisite for sexual activity between individuals. Unfortunately, the potent combination of alcohol or drugs and hormones frequently trumps all this training, and unplanned sexual encounters still occur. Sometimes these are consensual, sometimes not. Sometimes one or both participants are incapable of giving informed consent. Often, in such cases, one or both parties need time to figure out what happened and why before deciding how to proceed. We try to make sure students know they have a range of options:

Confidential counseling and advice from our counseling center, health center, and our chaplains;

Official reports and prompt follow-up by our dean of students, campus safety officers, Title IX coordinator, or others in positions of responsibility;

Filing criminal charges with local law enforcement.

Our Title IX investigator promptly investigates allegations of sexual misconduct, and we have campus safety officers trained in working with victims of sexual assault. Our on-campus judicial process involves trained panels of faculty, students, and staff, with timetables for judicial action and opportunities for both accused and accuser to appeal. Institutional letters of "no contact" can prevent unwanted encounters between students involved in such cases, while our judicial guidelines permit the accused to pose questions to the accuser without directly confronting him/her.

Despite all these efforts, in 100 percent of the cases that have gone through our process, both parties are left feeling devastated. However, in no case, ever, at any institution where I have worked, has there been an effort to "sweep a case under the carpet." Sexual assaults happen on every campus, and cover-ups only make things worse. That does not mean we can speak publicly about cases, but confidentiality requirements are for the protection of our students, not the institution's reputation.

I cite Muhlenberg's policies, procedures, and values not because they are extraordinary - in fact, they are representative of what many campuses do. Those of us who work in higher education chose this profession because we value and enjoy young people and want them to thrive. But even the most energetic and well-intentioned institution cannot guarantee a perfectly safe environment. There may be institutional outliers that don't care enough or don't try hard enough, but I suspect they are the exception. They should be held accountable, but they should not be considered typical of our country's higher education institutions.