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DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER: Protecting Students

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Before holiday break, a student at Ashland High School posted a message on Facebook that she had been sexually assaulted, and alleged that there were other “multiple” cases and a “rape culture” at the high school. The message set off a tense debate about the extent of sexual assault within the student body, and also the administration’s response.  

At press time, those investigations were continuing, and are immediately troubling. What’s more, in the larger context, sexual assault is one of the most persistent plagues at our country’s schools. However, what had been promising is that for the past three years, the Obama Administration has taken admirable steps towards modifying that culture and individual behavior.

It is, however, frightening to consider what attitude Donald Trump will bring to this problem—and in what direction his administration may lead this problem.

Simply stated, sexual assault in high schools and college campuses in an epidemic. A far-reaching study conducted by the Association of American Colleges a year ago announced the troubling results from a survey of 150,000 students at 27 universities, that one out of four women are sexually assaulted during their years at college.

Much has been made about the connection between athletes and “rape culture”—as has been part of the concern at Ashland High. While those reports are prevalent, those incidents distract from the larger picture, that these incidents of assault, stalking and rape are wide-spread throughout student body populations, from football and swim teams to drama and chess clubs as well. Appropriately, the Obama Administration has confronted the issue on as many fronts as possible, and both through social media and administratively.

Two Septembers ago, the White House announced an ambitious campaign to change culture on campuses: The “It’s On Us” campaign, a series of short videos—often with young celebrities—encouraging safer and more appropriate sexual conduct, in particular honing in on consent and bystander intervention. The task that the “It’s On Us” campaign is undertaking is enormous. Changing culture on a campus—let alone campuses nationwide—is akin to changing the direction of a giant freighter ship at sea; it is a slow process. That said, the program has scored several major, empirical successes: Some 300 colleges are actively promoting the campaign.

More telling, though, is the depth and reach of the program. It was not simply rolled out as a grassroots effort, but is a highly sophisticated media campaign. “We are committed to creating an environment—be it a dorm room, a party, a bar or club, or the greater college campus—where sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported,” said a press release from the White House when the program was first announced in September 2014.

But what that elementary sentiment did not reveal is how clever the media plan is: The campaign has employed the NCAA as a collaborator, with student-athletes creating short videos and leading seminars at dozens of colleges. Moreover, addressing that idea of a fragmented media landscape, the “It’s On Us” campaign is perhaps one of the most clever and modern media campaigns. In addition to partnering with the NCAA, the campaign has launched on several other media platforms—meeting students where they are; like, working with both Electronic Arts, a video gaming company, and with Viacom, which owns MTV, VH1 and BET.

Moreover, the Obama administration understands/stood that changing public policy takes more than social media, and also doubled-down on legislative enforcement. The Sexual Violence Elimination Act, for example, was signed into law in 2013, effectively forcing colleges and universities to document numbers of stalking cases, dating violence cases, and domestic violence cases, as well as the sexual assault cases in their annual security reports—and tying federal funding to compliance. It is an incredibly difficult task to change culture and societal attitudes, but the Obama administration has made honorable and pragmatic efforts.

It is keenly worrisome that the new administration lacks the cleverness, sophistication and empathy to continue these efforts. That likely lack of leadership leaves the responsibility with local school districts. We hope that the local principals and districts takes up proactive measures.  In a letter responding to recent student accusations, the principal quickly pointed out that alleged sexual assaults had not occurred on campus. That is not the point; what is important that they take any and all appropriate trainings, protections and investigations for students. We hope they respond better in the upcoming term, with more concern about individual students than about their legal liabilities.


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