Friday, February 28

Alexandra Tashman: Progress made in sexual assault discussion

When I sat down to write my first column on sexual assault for the Daily Bruin nearly two years ago, I felt like I didn’t have enough material.

There was only one program on campus that trained students to respond to sexual violence, or even discussed sexual violence at all – Campus Assault Resources & Education Speak Out and Support Coalition.

Even more, I was upset that no one else on this campus seemed to be interested in talking about sexual assault. So although I churned out that first article, I wasn’t satisfied. I kept digging.

From what I could tell, it seemed that sexual assault wasn’t a topic typically brought to the table for open discussion by members of the UCLA community. Students and student organizations weren’t talking about sexual violence, even though UCLA had the highest number of reported rapes of any college campus in California in 2012, according to FBI crime statistics.

Of course, this culture of silence was not confined to UCLA. A series of high-profile incidents of misreporting and mishandling of sexual assault cases at universities in California and around the nation have brought sexual assault to the forefront of the national discourse on higher education.

This includes federal complaints of Title IX and Clery Act violations at Occidental College, USC and UC Berkeley – and even led to state auditors looking into UCLA, among other schools – to determine if sexual assault cases were being underreported.

The momentum of the subject and the emotional weight it carries across the nation have finally spurred renewed attention among the highest circle of the federal government.

Last week, President Barack Obama released a memorandum called “Establishing a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault” in response to the large number of college students filing complaints across the country.

The creation of the national task force continues to position the weight of the federal government behind what was previously seen as a limited campus issue. In addition, a report released with the memorandum identifies long-hinted-at problems with sexual assault reporting and prosecution, among them police disbelief in survivors.

The report identifies the same solution to sexual assault we’ve seen develop on our campus – that students must speak out and take up an active role in the campus discourse on this issue in order to effect institutional change. But it also points to another group that can and should contribute more to the movement: men. Men can speak out as both survivors and as the relatives and friends of survivors, bringing even more attention to the cause.

Things have changed at UCLA since I started reporting on this issue. At the time, student survivors had the option to get support from UCLA Counseling and Psychological Services, or could take their case up with the dean of students. But those are the base level federal requirements of our university.

Other resources offered to sexual assault survivors were poorly advertised at best. For example, the Office of the Dean of Students website previously referred survivors to the Women & Men Center for Support, a campus institution which had already been closed for over a year.

The climate I reported about on our campus two years ago was drastically different from the one we see now.

Student initiatives such as CARE SOS and the UCLA Clothesline Project have expanded greatly, and the undergraduate student government-backed campaign “7,000 in Solidarity: A Campaign Against Sexual Assault” has drawn even more campus attention to the issue. This week is even “Consent Week,” which is devoted to programming and discussing how to prevent sexual violence on our campus – an event I could have only dreamed of two years ago.

It all boils down to this: Students are breaking the silence on our campus, and on campuses around the country. But they’re not just speaking – they’re shouting, and the nation’s leaders are listening.

It was these violations and these complaints that led to the creation of the national task force. Obama’s actions affirm that the safety and health of students supersedes the supposed prestige and reputation of the institutions that are supposed to protect them.

We’ve come far, but there’s still a long way to go.

Although sexual assault on college campuses is a public issue important on our campus and campuses across the nation, reporting rates are still low, and the percentage of college students who are survivors remains high.

We are all responsible – students, men, women, family members, friends – for ensuring that all levels of government and all campus communities continue to stay focused on the subject of sexual assault. With sustained momentum, we have the ability to break the silence, permanently.


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