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The University of Virginia rotunda.  Wikimedia Commons/Todd Vance
The University of Virginia rotunda. Wikimedia Commons/Todd Vance

 

The first time Mira was sexually assaulted on her college campus, the perpetrator was her close friend. The second time, it was her co-producer at the campus radio station.

In the first case, her friend invited her to his off-campus apartment to hear his mix tapes, she explains, tears welling up in her eyes. It was at the beginning of the spring semester of her junior year at the University of Maryland. Mira (not her real name; she has requested anonymity for privacy reasons), 21, had known the guy, a fellow Maryland student, nearly her entire life. “He is like a cousin,” she explains. She knew and trusted him. But she still wound up a campus rape statistic.


Now, as Mira is telling her story for the first time, a national conversation has begun about safety on college campuses, triggered by a recent Rolling Stone story about the University of Virginia’s intransigent response to a gang rape allegation on campus. The story, which has gone viral online, sheds light on how universities – and victims themselves – handle (or don’t) sexual assault on campus, from the lack of coherent policies to the persistent stigma attached to reporting sexual assault.

According to the Rolling Stone article, UVA didn’t have a clear sexual violence policy, nor did the university have a clear set of instructions for students on how they should report an incident of sexual violence. The article accurately points out that none of these problems are confined to the stately southern campus founded by Thomas Jefferson.

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Rather, as Dahlia Lithwick put it in Slate: “Your kids’ school? Probably a rape school, too.”
As Mira’s story suggests, Jewish students are not immune from the dangers of campus rape culture. Mira was raised in a Conservative Jewish home in Silver Spring. Her raven tresses and petite frame make her look like many of her other Jewish peers at her university. According to U.S. government statistics, one in five girls in college are victims of sexual assault, and one in 16 men.

When Mira was raped, she did not know where to turn – the police? The university? The Jewish community? Every option had its own ramifications to consider. Had she turned to the university or the authorities, her rapist would have been punished, she believed, but she feared how his parents and hers would react. If she went to the Jewish community, she feared she would be stigmatized. Besides which, she didn’t even know how to report.


“If a crime is committed,” said Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, “the victim has the right to report it.” A victim of sexual assault has the right to approach the university or law enforcement officers to report the assault. “The victim needs to have latitude about where to report.”

Under Title IX, universities are required to report their internal crime statistics to the FBI every year. Universities are also required to publicize these crime facts in their annual security reports, which must be available for public reference.

Some schools, however, underreport campus crimes, which is why UVA and some 85 other colleges and universities, including Catholic University in D.C. and Johns Hopkins in Maryland, are under Title IX investigations right now.

As Elizabeth Adler, a current University of Virginia student, put it, sexual assault crimes are “not just a UVA problem… sexual assault is a national problem.”

If a university is informed of a case of sexual assault, it must report that to law enforcement officers, explained Gansler. “Universities need to comply with Title IX,” the law that prohibits discrimination based on gender in a place of education, including sexual discrimination and sexual assault, said Gansler, as well as the Cleary Act, a federal law that requires universities to report campus crime. “Universities can’t hide and not report,” said Gansler.

At the University of Maryland, like at a growing number of universities, sexual assault policies are being clarified to the administration and students. Victims have options as to how to report their assault – either through the police department or through the university. Choosing to go through the police department, the abuser can face criminal charges and the likelihood that a victim’s charge will be responded to quickly is high. A victim may choose to go through the university to have her abuser suspended or expelled.

Josh Bronson, a Title IX investigator at UMd., said that university officials everywhere need to be more approachable to sexual assault victims.

David Mitchell, UMd.’s chief of police, said he’s heard that message. “I am not going to allow a female victim to get victimized twice, first by the aggressor, and then by the system,” he said.

To making coming forward with a rape complaint easier, UMd. offers a form of amnesty; a student will not face disciplinary sanction for reporting an incident that occurred while she or anyone else were under the influence of alcohol. Universities are trying to encourage bystander intervention and get victims to report.

University of Maryland recently kick-started a new campaign that will require all 50,000 students, faculty and staff to complete a training program on sexual misconduct prevention. Students were alerted via email of the required online training, which focuses on four key elements: recognizing abuse, retribution against the aggressor, safe habits in reducing one’s risk, and filing a report.

But studies show that victims don’t report. One reason is that most of the time, victims like Mira are abused by someone they know, explained Stephanie Revero, assistant coordinator of CARE to Stop Violence at UMd.

“Ninety percent of perpetrators are acquaintances,” said Revero, “maybe even someone they had been friends with or trusted at some point.”

Colleges across the country have reported sexual assault cases, but the question up for debate by the media and prospective students is how they deal with the situations once they are reported.

Some victims of sexual assault do not report their cases, desperately hoping to avoid the fear and frustration of going through the legal process. “We know that many women don’t report when something happens to them on campus because they don’t know the system or what to do,” said Deborah Rosenbloom, vice president at Jewish Women International.

“All too often they know that it’s going to go no place and in many cases, nothing really happens to the perpetrator, she said. “They’re frightened and ashamed.”

Mira did not report either of her campus sexual assaults. The first time, she didn’t report him because he was essentially family. She had known him since childhood. Their families were close; they are still close. They even spent part of Thanksgiving together this year.

Mira dealt with her own victimization through Judaism – she experienced what she called a “spiritual cleansing” in the mikvah at Adas Israel in D.C. – and poetry, rather than come forward and face the judgment of her peers.

Gansler recognizes that “the stigma of reporting needs to be changed.” He compares this situation to domestic violence pre-1990. Beforehand, not many women reported it because of the stigma attached to the reporting. “Once the stigma was down, more people were willing to come forward,” he said.

Hillel International, the campus Jewish organization, has prioritized programs to combat campus sexual assault.

“Students come to Hillel professionals about a variety of issues in their lives. They also come to us to find support [after sexual assault],” said Sheila Katz, Hillel International’s vice president for social entrepreneurship. “Our first priority is to ensure the safety of our students and then connect them with the appropriate people on campus, and we work with them to look at this through a Jewish lens.”

Jewish parents are currently taking these matters into consideration when guiding their children with college applications. As Gansler explained, “People don’t want to send their children off to college where their daughters could be sexually assaulted.” He added: “Parents need to know the colleges and law enforcement officers will adequately deal with this seriously.”

For Leba Halpern, a 17-year-old Jewish high school senior from Olney, “the sexual assault allegations have influenced the colleges I’m applying to. The allegations make the campuses feel less safe and safety is a major concern in college.”

Zev Halpern, Leba’s father, said that, in the wake of the UVA allegations, he has been extra vigilant about teaching his daughter “to not walk into [dangerous] situations, not go out at night and cut corners, and have a plan and develop a keen eye.” He has also advised his college-bound daughter to “be careful about leaving the bigger scene for a smaller party.” He adds that every parent should have the same conversation.

“It’s a parent’s responsibility.”

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