My University Has One of the Best Damn Sexual Assault Programs in the Country
On move-in day, Abby, a freshman girl, runs into cute upperclassman Frank. For weeks they flirt, and Abby gushes over him with her roommates. Frank invites her to a big party at his fraternity. A mutual friend is there, too, and he knows Frank's a good guy, so he feels okay leaving early. Frank offers to give Abby a tour of the house; Abby isn't used to drinking, and she's had a lot of punch. Dazed, he leads her into his room, and the scene quickly escalates way beyond what Abby had intended—but she's incoherent, and the music is too loud for anyone downstairs to hear her.
This was the scene that played out in front of the University of New Hampshire's entire freshman class on move-in weekend in August, 2012. Each year, WildACTS, UNH's social change theater troupe, writes and performs a play covering a range of issues relevant to campus life (including mental health struggles, abusive relationships, cross-cultural communication, and roommate conflict) while spending a week in training with various campus organizations, like SHARPP (Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program).
Centrally located right next to the campus health center in Wolff House, SHARPP has a strong presence on campus, running several events throughout the year, including the Anti-Violence Rally and Walk, the White Ribbon Campaign to inspire men to "Be Part of the Solution," and the Vagina Monologues, as well as frequently setting up tables in the student union building to answer questions and pass out information leaflets and Consent Is Sexy buttons and bookmarks to students.
I had no idea how great we had it until I started hearing about what happens to survivors who seek help at so many at other campuses -- which has been covered here a whole lot of times: Denial. Official cover-ups. Victim-blaming. Irrelevant and humiliating questions.
With nearly 1 in 5 women experiencing sexual assault during college, it's about time so many schools' woefully inadequate policies and shameful treatment of survivors got some attention. In 2011, Joe Biden launched a campaign to end sexual assault on campus, "1 is 2 Many," and the White House is acting: On Tuesday, a task force issued a report, "Not Alone," to advise schools on how to handle sexual assault, in which it named UNH as a model for other colleges to follow.
At SHARPP, survivors of all identities can drop in or call a 24-hour help line to receive confidential counseling free of judgement by trained advocates who are warm, courteous, and take all complaints very seriously. SHARPP provides counsel and accompaniment for survivors seeking justice through campus conduct and/or the local police department -- but only if and when survivors are ready. SHARPP helps survivors initiate academic interventions if schoolwork has been impacted as well. In its mission to "eliminate sexual and intimate partner violence," SHARPP trains students to become peer advocates, and provides educational programming to groups like WildACTS on how to be an active bystander to protect friends and prevent more tragedies.
I am so proud to be a part of a campus community that's so tough on sexual assault and supportive of survivors—and I certainly hope more campuses learn from SHARPP's example!
After the assault, Abby spirals into a depression, missing classes and withdrawing from her social life. A friend -- the one from the party -- reaches out. He tells her he believes her, that it's not her fault, and gently encourages her to take advantage of the campus's resources for survivors -- and offers to go with her. She accepts, and begins her long road to recovery. She decides to report the incident. The school responds quickly, and Frank is promptly and permanently expelled. Abby receives the support she needs to return to campus and continue her college career, feeling safe and cared for.
We may not ever get rid of all the Franks of the world, but we can learn to take better care of the Abbies as friends, bystanders, and university communities -- and expel the Franks' sorry asses.