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Military approach needed to end college sex assault

Sunday, May 18, 2014
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As the school year ends, most of our high school seniors are finalizing plans for the next few years.

Those that are headed into the military will have the benefits of some new reforms that were designed to curb an epidemic of sexual violence within our nation's armed forces.

Although the bill that was sponsored by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand did not pass, her efforts to get people talking about this elephant in the corner were needed to drive the eventual 97-0 vote for reforms in the Senate.

We can only hope that the current efforts of Sen. Gillibrand and others to combat sexual violence on college campuses will be as successful as their efforts to protect victims and prosecute sexual predators in our armed forces.

Sen. Gillibrand had initially focused only on the military, ignoring the problems in colleges, until two courageous women from the University of North Carolina showed up, unannounced, at her office to tell her of their experiences as victims.

If sexual violence in the military had been the elephant that no one spoke of, sexual assaults on college campuses were the Tyrannosaurus Rex that had been swept under the rug.

An estimated 4 percent of women in the military are victims of sexual crimes in any given year. While this is outrageous, a college freshman is at even greater risk. Research indicates that more than 20 percent of women entering college will be sexually assaulted at some point in their college experience, with a disproportionate percentage occurring in the first and second year. Further, there is plenty of evidence of the problem in our senator’s home state, and specifically in and around her former congressional district.

Investigative research reveals that only about 5 percent of all assaults are officially reported. So if we look at the available statistics for local colleges, the numbers look lower. Including on and off campus sexual crimes, U.S. Department of Education statistics for 2012 showed one at Union College, seven at Siena, three at RPI, two at Hartwick, six at Skidmore, and eight at Syracuse. The statistical leader in this area seems to be SUNY Albany with 10.

Even these numbers are horrendous, when each is viewed as a predatory crime with life changing repercussions. But we can't assume that the reported numbers represent the number of actual occurrences in each school.

The way that victims are handled, and the investigative and disciplinary policies of the schools, seems to vary widely. So numbers that look lower by comparison may just be suppressed. Negative publicity recently forced Skidmore, for example, to hire outside counsel and to review the training for staff and the policies dealing with assaults involving their students.

Sen. Gillibrand needs to ask around: You can barely speak of this subject with women who've been to college without hearing stories that shame college practices. There is no shortage of anecdotes in which colleges mishandle sexual crimes as internal matters when clearly a criminal investigation was warranted.

Sen. Gillibrand had attempted to remove commanding officers' influence from the prosecution of sexual assaults in the military. I hope that she will be successful in taking influence away from college administrations.

They have a huge conflict of interest in keeping the reported numbers low and protecting star students and athletes. But prosecution should not be the main focus. Prosecution has little effect until someone has been assaulted. I hope the focus on colleges can be more proactive.

Standards should be established and enforced for:

-- Indoctrination of students

Training on scenarios that lead to victimization, and what constitutes criminal behavior should be part of student orientation. About 84 percent of assaults take place in the first two years at college, and the worst times are in September and October. We shouldn't wait for students to learn for themselves about risky behaviors.

-- Supervision of minors

The likelihood of victimization in a sexual assault is much higher among college students that are under 18 years of age.

-- Alcohol prevention

A disproportionate number of victims and of perpetrators in sexual assaults were intoxicated at the time of the offense.

Boys: sex with someone that doesn't consent is lame, sick, and criminal. Further, if you stand by while your friend, teammate or frat brother pursues sex without consent (including incapable of consent), you are complicit in a crime.

Girls: There will be predators, some quite charming, on your college campus. The combination of alcohol and hormones can lead to horrible choices by otherwise decent human beings. Be extremely cautious about who you are alone with, especially when alcohol is involved.

Sen. Gillibrand: I see that this issue is starting to gather steam in Washington. I sincerely hope that you will ensure that the responses are more than just political band aids and feel-good gestures.

Please give reforms some teeth, and help millions of our students live happier lives.

Norman Parazzo lives in Glenville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

 
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