Since two Statesman reporters began a months-long investigation that revealed troubling information about how the University of Minnesota Duluth has handled sexual assault cases, administrators for the school say they are taking more steps to prevent sexual violence among UMD students. UMD health educator Dori Decker said that increased efforts are being made on campus to strengthen a victim-centered support and response network. These steps include possibly forming a task force to look at violence against women.
“Just having a consistent dialogue about it and ... exploring the ways that we might be able to act as a campus community in policy work or initiatives that work toward creating a safe environment,” Decker said. “Not to say that we don’t have a safe environment, but there’s always room for creating a healthier environment.”
The university and community partners have submitted a grant “that would support educational programming and expanded victim services on campus,” Decker said. “With or without funding though, I am optimistic there will be momentum with some new initiatives.”
This series of articles found that although anonymous surveys indicate hundreds of students are sexually assaulted every year, no perpetrators have been disciplined by the university in the last 14 years. Few victims come forward, and some of those who do have been pressured to drop charges. Victims have also said that they didn’t know what to do when they were assaulted.
To address some of these issues, Decker said she would like to see a renewal of a student group specifically targeted at motivating men to prevent sexual assault. One such group, called Challenging All Men to Prevent Sexism (CHAMPS), worked to raise awareness from fall 2008 to fall 2010.
“I’d like to see a (men’s) student group again and I think it’s important for students speaking to students,” Decker said. “We’ve used the peer model before through what we do at Health Services and I feel like that really is effective.”
‘A WORK IN PROGRESS’
Decker also said the school’s Health Services department will be working with UMD’s Office of Cultural Diversity to “work together with representatives across campus to assess what’s being done and possibilities for the future, regarding sexual assault.”
The director of the Office of Cultural Diversity, Susana Pelayo-Woodward, who also oversees the Women’s Resource and Action Center, was instrumental in developing the university’s current sexual assault protocol.
Woodward said she believes the university’s policy is strong, but there is still a need to focus on educating students about the issue of sexual assault.
“That is the part that I think is still a work in progress,” Woodward said. “How do we educate students when they come here?”
Experts such as Hannah Rivenburgh, public health associate at the Minnesota Department of Health, are strongly in favor of mandatory preventive education, particularly during welcome week.
“The highest rate of victimization for college students is during the first few weeks of their freshman year of college, when they’re the most vulnerable in terms of what the expectations are and they’re maybe drinking more than they did in high school,” Rivenburgh said.
Unlike some other universities in Minnesota, UMD does not have mandatory preventive education on sexual violence. The only time sexual assault is discussed with all incoming freshmen is in a 10-minute segment of a general safety video. The basic message is how to stay safe, but the video does not tell students what resources are available to them should they be assaulted. There are also three optional workshops on sexual assault during welcome week that reach a total of about 100 students – a small fraction of incoming students.
Rivenburgh said preventive education is important not just as a one-time presentation. Colleges need lasting programs and continuous exposure to this issue, she said.
“What we’re talking about is the safety and success of the students on campus, and every student deserves and legally is guaranteed the right to an education free from discrimination based on sex and free from violence,” she said. “So sort of on a big philosophical picture you could argue that this is one of the most important things to think about on campus.”
QUICK FIXES ‘DON’T NECESSARILY STICK’
But Chancellor Lendley Black said while he is open to mandatory education, he doesn’t think it is necessarily the answer.
“Sometimes it’s easy to jump to a lot of quick fixes that don’t necessarily stick and so it’s a bit complicated,” Black said. “But it just takes a lot of work and we will get there, but it’s a matter of finding the right timing, the right messaging, and the right ways to reinforce that messaging through various means.”
Vice Chancellor of Student Life Lisa Erwin agreed.
“I think these ideas of teaching about sexual violence, what it is, are really, really, really important and where to report in general, certainly,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s useful to teach people policy and procedure. That’s not the point. The point is to understand the behavior, what’s OK and what’s not, and then to know what to do if it happens to you.”
UMD PD LOOKING AHEAD
Capt. Scott Drewlo, the new director of the UMD Police Department, says he looks forward to a stronger partnership between the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA) and the UMDPD.
“I’m just so excited about the opportunities here and working with PAVSA,” Drewlo said. “And getting PAVSA more involved on campus and with our cases even, just to ensure that we can take them as far as possible in the prosecutorial avenues.”
Drewlo, who took over direction of the department on July 9, was asked to comment on the two sexual assault cases discussed in these articles for the Statesman. In both cases, Drewlo said that it would have been helpful to have a PAVSA advocate involved to “shepherd the case” and guide communication with the victim.
Drewlo said that he has a good relationship with PAVSA and plans to bring them into a closer relationship with the UMDPD. He said he also hopes to bring RAD (rape awareness defense training) onto UMD’s campus.
“I’m really looking forward to being able to do some proactive stuff here with PAVSA, and not only PAVSA but DAIP—Domestic Abuse Intervention Program,” he said. “I’ve got kind of a unique opportunity here to get out in front of it.”
Find more on this investigation: Surveys reveal big gap in sexual assault reporting at UMD Sexual assault victims feel pressured to drop charges No sanctions in 14 years No one is immune: A former UMD student’s story of sexual assault
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