ECU takes on sexual violence

Feb. 4, 2015

Doug Boyd
ECU News Services

Preventing sexual violence on college campuses has become a focus of federal authorities and university leaders. In January 2014, President Barack Obama announced a task force to combat sexual violence on the nation's campuses.

It's also a serious matter at ECU.

"I am to be notified," ECU Police Chief Gerald Lewis says when an allegation of sexual violence occurs. "I don't care what time it is or what day it is. It is taken very seriously. People trust us to provide a safe environment for our students and their loved ones."

When sexual violence happens on a college or university campus, it is a law enforcement issue as well as a federal issue due to statutes addressing sex discrimination, which includes sexual violence, at educational institutions.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 requires colleges and universities to provide equal educational opportunities in education and activities for men and women and designate a Title IX officer responsible for coordinating the university's compliance programs. Court cases in the 1990s established that Title IX also covers sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus.

"We think about it with sports," Kristen Bonatz, associate university attorney at ECU, says of Title IX, "but it's more general than that. It's women's access to higher education. That's the connection."

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, passed in 1990, requires educational institutions to track and disclose crime data, including sex offenses. The act was named after Clery, a Lehigh University student who was asleep in her room when a fellow student forced his way in and raped, tortured and strangled her.

The federal Department of Education enforces Title IX and the Clery Act.

In 2011, in its "Dear Colleague" letter, the department's Office for Civil Rights reminded universities that under Title IX "the sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students' right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime."

In May 2014, the OCR announced it was investigating 55 colleges and universities--big and small, public and private--over their handling of sexual abuse complaints.

ECU Police and the Division of Student Affairs, working with student organizations,  have raised awareness of sexual violence on campus for several years with annual events such as "Take Back the Night" and "Walk a Mile in Her Shoes." University leaders are also making the issue a priority.

"We need to hit it head on," said Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor for student affairs. According to the National Institute of Justice, "... several studies indicate that a substantial proportion of female students--between 18 and 20 percent--experience rape or some other form of sexual assault during their college years." At ECU, from 2010 to 2012, reports of forcible sex offenses on campus climbed from four to 11. Whether that indicates an increase in the crime or an increase in reporting isn't clear.

Heather Littleton, an associate professor of psychology at ECU and sexual violence expert, calls sexual violence a "major public health issue" that is often kept secret.

"A lot of women who have been sexually assaulted don't feel comfortable seeking in-person therapy for a variety of reasons," Littleton says. "It's unfortunately way too common, but it's still something people don't want to talk about and deny. Over half of them don't consider what happened to them to be rape or even a crime."

lakesha-alstonECU has worked during the last few years to encourage reporting through educational programs, outreach and improving the reporting process. LaKesha Alston, associate provost for equity and diversity, serves as Title IX coordinator. She agrees that it might seem odd that an administrator would get involved in what seems like a police matter, but she says police are limited in their jurisdiction to provide "interim measures" to maintain a safe and equitable campus environment.

"'Who's going to help with all the things I'm dealing with on campus?'" she says a student might ask. "'Who's going to assist me with the taunting or teasing? Who's going to help me deal with this person being in the same residence hall as I am?'

"The criminal system has limitations in the ways law enforcement agencies can address sexual assault on college campuses," Alston says. "Title IX has really called for increased prevention and response efforts for the campus as well as enhancing critical partnerships with campus and local police departments."

Alcohol is also in the crosshairs for its connection to sexual violence. In a 2004 study using data from three Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study surveys, one in 20 women reported being raped. Of those, 72 percent experienced rape while intoxicated.

"There's a big, big correlation between alcohol abuse and sexual assaults," says Brent Herron '77, vice president of campus safety and emergency operations for the University of North Carolina system. "That's a big deal" and a focus of the UNC system, he says.

Bill Koch, associate vice chancellor for environmental health and safety, has worked at "aid stations" on weekends downtown and has escorted students home himself. He stresses that students should travel in groups, be aware of who's around them and take other precautions.

"The person who commits the crime is to blame," he says. "But we need to reduce our risk if we can. There are predators out there, and they are looking for easy targets."

Information about what victims of sexual violence should do at ECU is online at ecu.edu/cs-acad/titleix/resources.cfm. In short, call 911, call the ECU Police at 252-328-6787 and seek medical attention.