After ‘disturbing’ sexual assault rates disclosed at UNC, students call for solutions

Dozens of students at UNC-Chapel Hill made it clear Monday it’s unacceptable that 1 in 3 female undergraduate students reported being sexually assaulted during their time at UNC.

And they called on student leaders and university officials to make campus a safer place after a recent survey showed “disturbing” rates of sexual assault and harassment.

Results of the Association of American Universities 2019 survey on sexual assault and misconduct were released last week. The rate of sexual assault is 1 in 4 students nationally.

Nearly 6,000 UNC students responded to the survey, which showed nearly half of UNC students experienced at least one type of harassing behavior. About 90% of the offenders were other UNC students. The rates were higher than a 2015 survey.

Monday, a panel made up of representatives from UNC campus police, student government, the Title IX Office, the student wellness center and the Carolina Women’s Center focused their discussion on prevention, education and collaboration. They also asked for more resources and staff to be hired to handle this problem.

“It goes back to the question of how we can get the resources out to students in the best way possible,” said Ashton Martin, undergraduate student body president. “What we could realistically do in a year is figure out how we can better educate students working across campus and how we can make more people aware of the things that are available to them afterwards.”

Increasing awareness

Panelists discussed myths about sexual assault and gender-based violence to make clear that friends can be perpetrators; not every survivor feels comfortable reporting incidents to police or the university; and it’s not the victim’s or survivor’s responsibility to protect themselves.

They helped define affirmative consent as clear communication that is conscious and freely made for each agreed-upon sexual act. And they asked for student input on how to get messages out to the entire student body to increase awareness.

They informed students of confidential advocates at the Carolina Women’s Center who can advise students on steps to take through UNC and law enforcement if they want to report that they’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted. They described how the university can provide academic support and accommodations for students dealing with the trauma of an incident, such as notifying professors and excusing absences.

“This event is beneficial for students to get educated,” said Kelley Traynham, a senior advisor in student government. “They have that outlet to know how they can better their situation or what they can do to limit the effects or the detrimental things that have happened to them regarding sexual assault and gender-based violence.”

Traynham and other members of UNC student government started the red zone initiative to help educate students on affirmative consent, how not to perpetrate, and ways to intervene through social media, campus events and other resources.

The “red zone” is the time between August and November when more than 50% of college sexual assaults occur, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

How prevalent are sexual assaults on UNC’s campus?

UNC’s numbers are slightly higher than the national average in the survey, which was taken by 182,000 students from 33 universities. UNC-Chapel Hill was the only school from North Carolina to participate.

The overall results across the country showed that more than a quarter (25.9%) of female undergraduates said they had experienced nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or because they were unable to give consent.

Among the survey findings at UNC:

20% of undergraduate women said they had experienced nonconsensual sexual penetration since entering college. That number was 27% for undergraduate women in their fourth year or higher.

35% of undergraduate women at UNC said they had experienced nonconsensual sexual touching or penetration in college. That number was 45% of undergraduate women in their fourth year or higher.

48.1% of all survey respondents experienced at least one type of harassing behavior.

89.2% of all students who experienced harassing behavior said another student was the offender.

“Those are disturbing numbers,” UNC’s Title IX Coordinator Adrienne Allison said. “From where I sit, they’re not terribly surprising numbers unfortunately.”

Allison oversees the university’s response to reports of sexual harassment, gender-based violence, domestic violence and stalking.

“The data that we got gives us a really good opportunity to really dig in and see where are the places that we need to enhance our efforts, particularly in prevention and education,” Allison said.

While the numbers in the survey indicate a higher prevalence of reports of sexual assault and harassment on campus than in previous years, that doesn’t necessarily mean more incidents are occurring.

“There could be folks who are either coming forward now,” Allison said. “Or perhaps, given all of the national attention on sexual violence and sexual harassment, they may be revisiting experiences they’ve had and are empowered now to think about them in a different way.”

Martin was disheartened by UNC’s results, seeing that her school was “particularly bad.” But she said she has changed her thinking to address the issue more directly moving forward.

“We don’t need to compare these results to other universities,” Martin said. “Even if one person responded to the survey that they’ve been harassed or assaulted, that would’ve been too many.”

One positive element Allison saw in the 2019 survey results is the bystander education and students’ willingness to step in when they see troubling behavior.

“Our students do want to create a safe community for each other and want to hold each other accountable,” Allison said. “We just need to help give them the tools and skills to do that.”

How was the survey done?

Nearly 182,000 students from 33 universities participated in the survey. UNC-Chapel Hill was the only school from North Carolina to participate. Duke University is also a member of the AAU, but did not participate in the survey.

Most schools sent out emails asking all undergraduate, graduate and professional students to participate in the online survey during an average of 30 days. The majority of schools offered students incentives to participate, such as being entered into a drawing for a cash prize or offered an Amazon gift card that ranged from $5 to $20.

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Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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