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Rape on campus is not good for business

A new documentary, "The Hunting Ground," promises to change the conversation about sexual assault on campus

Photo courtesy of Toby Simon, which originally appeared in The Brown Daily Herald

How much has changed in 30 years? Toby Simon, holding her son, Ben, at a 1985 rally at Brown University, at which students called for an end to sexual assault on campus. The rally was held in the Wriston Quad, where many of the fraternities are located.

By Toby Simon
Posted 3/9/15
A new documentary, “The Hunting Ground,” puts the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses in sharp focus. The film itself could prove to be a tipping point in changing the way that colleges and universities address rape and sexual assault on their campuses.
How many campuses in Rhode Island will hold screenings of “The Hunting Ground?” Will Attorney General Peter Kilmartin hold a screening for law enforcement personnel in Rhode Island? Which member of the R.I. General Assembly will step forward and hold a screening for legislators?
Curt Schilling may be known for many things: as an ESPN baseball commentator, as the former World Series pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, as a cancer survivor [why is it that Major League baseball hasn’t banned chewing tobacco products?], as a gamer, and as the failed entrepreneur behind the infamous 38 Studios venture in Rhode Island. Now, he has taken on a new identity: naming and calling out the Twitter trolls who attacked his daughter, promising to assault her sexually, in explicit, disgusting language. Schilling may be responding as any outraged parent would, but his entry into the fray marks a distinct change in awareness. Perhaps Salve Regina, where his daughter will be an incoming freshman this fall, will hold a screening of “The Hunting Ground” for parents of incoming students, with Schilling as a sponsor.

PROVIDENCE – The poster for the new documentary, “Hunting Ground,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, frames the issue of sexual assault on campus: “For one in five women, their dream school will become a nightmare.”

In the film, which captures the narratives of sexual assault victims on campus and their challenges to the frustrating ways in which college campuses responded, the question gets asked by Diane Rosenfeld, a lecturer at Harvard Law School: what would happen if a school sent out a letter to parents of incoming freshmen, saying that there was a one in five chance that their child would be the victim of a drive-by shooting, and the shooters would be fellow students?

It wouldn’t be very good for business.

We should be outraged. When “The Hunting Ground” previewed at the Sundance Film Festival, people were. Viewers expressed shock and disbelief as the film effectively exposes the epidemic of sexual assault on campus. It was the same in New York City, where I viewed the film.

[At a Brown University screening of the film on March 2, bloggers from the Brown Daily Herald, who had gone to the film with the intent of gathering student reactions at the end of the film, it didn’t go as they expected. “When the film let out, very few attendees wanted to speak to us,” the bloggers wrote. “Some shook their heads, declined to comment, and one person said, ‘I have no words.’” For many of the students, the bloggers reported, the film hit very close to home, with one student telling the bloggers, “That could be me.”]

What’s happening on campus is not a pretty picture. Numerous studies, beginning with Mary Koss’s work in the 1980s and continuing to present time, show similar findings: some 20 percent of women on campus have been victims of rape or attempted rape.

“The Hunting Ground” is a brilliant documentary, one that casts a rather negative light on many colleges and universities.

The film exposes the lengths to which university officials attempt to cover up sexual assaults, inadequately adjudicate cases, and engage in victim-blaming behavior all the while making public pronouncements, such as: “At [our university], we take allegations of sexual assault very seriously.” Really?

The film also exposes the campus climate at some schools that has practically normalized sexual assault. Women students are interviewed and asked: what the fraternity SAE stands for. “Sexual Assault Expected” is the universal answer.

In turn, women seeking help from administrators are often asked: “What might you do differently next time?”

Not good for fund-raising efforts
Rape is just not good for a university’s fund-raising efforts. Some of our institutions of higher education seem willing to sacrifice the safety of their students by covering up statistics that hurt not only enrollment but raising money for the institution.

Campuses love to boast that theirs is the safest around. Except, in a president’s remarks to new parents, he or she never says that part about their children’s peers being the biggest threat to their safety.

The film opens with home videos of high school seniors learning their fates about where they’ll be attending college. It’s a great way to start the documentary, because you see the sheer joy and elation of young people who are about to be launched. They are so exuberant.

But, for many first year women and some men, this doesn’t last. Repeated studies have shown that first-year women are at the highest risk for sexual assault during their first three months on campus.

“The Hunting Ground” provides the most current data on sexual assault on college campuses. The statistics continue throughout the film.

One of the most incredible is that in 2012, 40 percent of all colleges reported no sexual assaults. Colleges work very hard at protecting their brand. Since rape is bad for business, it’s easier to attempt to keep these “incidents” on the down low.

One sobering interview was with a former campus security officer from Notre Dame, who said that campus security at Notre Dame cannot contact athletes for any reason, even if a rape has been reported.

Expulsion for rape is rare
When rapes are reported and adjudicated through a university disciplinary committee, the consequence for the student found responsible is rarely expulsion. At the University of Virginia, some 183 students were expelled for cheating and other academic violations; yet, in that same time period, there were none for sexual assault. Honor and character – two favorite words in higher education.

In addition to exposing Greek life, the film also does a number on university presidents and athletic departments pointing out that presidents usually hire their directors of athletics.

The film spends a fair amount of time exposing Florida State’s despicable lack of response to the sexual assault allegation (including a hospital rape kit exam and evidence of bruising) against the Heisman Trophy winner [and soon to be NFL player], Jameis Winston.

Professor David Lisak is also featured in this film. His research of more than 20 years shows that students who commit rape on a college campus are pretty much like those rapists in prison. In both groups, many are serial rapists. On college campuses, repeat predators account for nine out of every 10 rapes. Like the pattern of other rapists, college men look for the most vulnerable women.

These men know that first-year women are new to campus, younger, and less experienced. Looking to fit in and be accepted on their new campuses, many of these women have less experience with alcohol and may take more risks than they normally would. The college predators look for these women.

Infuriating but hopeful
The film is infuriating at times but also hopeful. The filmmakers follow two women from University of North Carolina who were raped on their campus. Frustrated with the way their university handled/mismanaged their cases, they started their own movement. They reached out to hundreds of sexual assault survivors across the country, many of whom also came forward to put a face and name on campus rape.

The finest aspect of this film is that it empowers these victims, giving them the means to speak out in such a way that their institutions have to hear what they are saying.

On a very personal level, “The Hunting Ground” validated my frustration and experience on college campuses for the past 35 years. In my various positions at several universities I have advocated for women and men who came to me with disclosures of sexual assault.

Sexual assault advocates are not very popular on campus, drawing the ire of university presidents, legal departments, and athletic heads.

We are often seen as over-zealous feminazis, with misplaced priorities and hidden agendas – as well as having a complete lack of loyalty to the institution. We become seen as untrustworthy and, as a result, there often is a price to pay for our advocacy.

For these very reasons, this movie should be required viewing for every university/ college president, their cabinets and boards of trustees, parents of high school students, athletic directors, Greek leadership, and faculty.

It’s time to make a dent in these statistics. It’s time to place a higher value on a victim’s account of sexual assault than on the university’s enrollment figures, fundraising efforts, institutional branding, athletic conference titles, and university relations departments.

Run, do not walk, to see this movie.

Editor’s Note: More than 1,000 universities have requested screenings, according to the distributors of “The Hunting Ground.”

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