Parents Add Concerns About Sexual Assault On Campus As Kids Head Off To College

By Hannan Adely
The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)


Terry Anzano, whose daughter is leaving for college this month, has heard the reports about the danger of sexual violence on campus. She worries about the risks inherent in a culture of binge drinking and promiscuity.

“Our heads are not in the sand,” said Anzano. who lives in Ridgewood.N.J. “We know there’s drinking and things that go on. You pray for them and support them and keep lines of communication open.”

Parents have long been concerned about their children’s safety as they leave for college, but that anxiety has deepened recently with the release last spring of a White House report that concluded that one woman in every five is sexually assaulted on campus.

“Campus safety should absolutely be part of the conversation,” said Abigail Boyer, assistant executive director of programs at the Clery Center for Campus Security, based in Wayne, Pa.. “It’s important for parents to discuss how they can intervene and all the resources that are available to them or for a friend if something should happen.”

Experts encourage parents to talk with both sons and daughters about how to step in or get help if they see behavior that is a “red flag.”

For instance, a bystander should be concerned if they see a student failing to respect another student’s opinions or boundaries, a person pushing drinks on another, or a student who is heavily intoxicated accompanied by someone who is sober.

The family conversation about sexual assault should not end when the student goes to college, said Ruth Anne Koenick, director of the Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance at Rutgers University.

Parents should encourage their children to talk about problems and assure daughters they won’t blame them or judge them if something goes wrong.

That’s key, Koenick said, because so many women don’t seek help because they fear how they’ll be treated by authorities and worry that families or other students will find out what happened.

While parents can help, Koenick said, their advice usually doesn’t go far enough because it often addresses stranger violence and not acquaintance assault, which is far more common.

“What the individual student does is not the cause of sexual violence,” Koenick said. “It’s really about the perpetrator.

So telling somebody not to drink isn’t going to be helpful. Telling a student not to go out at night is not helpful when most sexual violence happens between people who know each other.

“Rather than telling people what not to do, they need to talk about ways they can help their friends,” she said.

At orientation, student fairs and on posters hung all over campus, Rutgers educates students about ways to intervene in sexual assaults, Koenick said.

Melissa Driscoll, who was scheduled to take her daughter to college on a recent weekend, said she is a “tough cookie” when it comes to peer pressure. Still, she worries about the openness and trusting atmosphere in dormitories.

“At home, you wouldn’t just let someone you just met come in your bedroom, but that’s what you do in a dormitory,” Driscoll said. “If somebody decides to target you, there’s so many ways for them to target you in a college setting.”

Driscoll described her daughter, who is starting her freshman year at Rider University, as 5 feet tall and 87 pounds but skilled at self-defense through years of tae kwon do.

Anzano said she has talked with her son, who will attend Ohio State in the fall, about safety and respect for others from a young age.

She warns her daughter, also in college, to “never put a drink down and stay in a group” and urges her children to call so she can talk them “through a bad situation” such as a party that has gotten out of hand.

Karen Pennington, vice president of student development and campus life at Montclair State University, said the school tries to convey an atmosphere of openness so students are comfortable talking about problems.

Students learn about alcohol abuse and the link to sexual assault at freshman orientation at Montclair, Pennington said.

They are also introduced to smartphone apps they can use to notify police or friends of their whereabouts.

And they are told about the school’s sexual assault response team, which is made up of nurses, counselors and specially-trained police. The lessons continue during freshman year in a course on the transition to college.
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Part of the problem, Pennington said, is that students are too trusting.

“They need to remember that not everyone in the world is always primed to do the right thing,” Pennington said. “They need to look out for each other and make sure they take common sense precautions. If they are going out and drinking, (that means) they’re with a friend, they don’t drink too much, make sure they know what is in their drink.”

The programs to increase awareness of sexual violence are not new.

Both Rutgers and Montclair State have had such programs for years, but there is greater emphasis now on bystander intervention at campuses across the United States, experts say.

Many U.S. schools have been criticized for how they’ve responded to reports of sexual assaults on campus.

In some cases, administrators have not thoroughly investigated such reports or have done nothing to respond to harassment of the victim.

In April, a White House task force released “Not Alone,” which found that one in five women is sexually assaulted on campus but only 12 percent of them report the crime.

The task force calls for more training for school officials, better services for victims and time limits for investigations. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights also announced investigations of dozens of colleges over their handling of sexual assault claims.

The White House report also calls for “climate surveys” to determine the scope of the problem and how students perceive their school’s responses. Rutgers University will be the first to do such a survey.

Mary Beth Perry of Wyckoff, whose daughter is starting her freshman year at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, said she was recently talking with another mother about sexual assaults.

“We were saying how it happens all the time, she said.

“The thing that worries me the most is the drinking and what happens when kids are drinking,” she said. “They don’t have cars, but I just think about someone putting something in their drink. When drinking is involved, young people don’t always make wise choices.”

Caryl Romeo, a West Milford mother, said safety was on her mind when her daughter had to walk through a tunnel under a road to get back to the dormitory after class.

“I always told her to call me on the phone,” Romeo said. “She called me and I talked with her from the minute she left class until I knew she was safely in her dorm.”

She feels better knowing that Monmouth University, like most colleges, has call boxes and 24-hour security patrols. She sympathizes with parents parting with their kids for the first time.

“You go through a panic attack that first year when they leave, but realize you have to let them go,” she said. “You can’t be there with them.”

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