Sexual misconduct survey finds 16 percent of FSU students have been sexually assaulted

(Graphic by Brittany Cormier)

A climate survey on sexual violence administered in December 2014 found 16 percent of Framingham State University students have been sexually assaulted since matriculating at the University.

The Department of Justice defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities [such] as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling and attempted rape.”

The survey revealed 79 of 493 student respondents have experienced unwanted sexual contact since arriving at FSU.

Six hundred twenty-five students agreed to take the survey. However, students had the option to skip questions if they did not apply to them or if they did not feel comfortable answering.

Five hundred ninety-nine respondents specified their current gender identity. Eighty-one percent of students were female, 17 percent were male and nearly two percent identified as gender-nonconforming, transgender male, genderqueer or other.

The survey asked students multiple times if they had experienced unwanted sexual contact most likely to validate the data, said Director of Equal Opportunity, Title IX and ADA Compliance Kimberly Dexter.

Five respondents said the perpetrator was affiliated with FSU as an employee, staff or faculty member. Two said they were “not sure.”

Forty-seven respondents said the perpetrator was another student at FSU. Four said they did not know.

Nine survey respondents said they had sexually assaulted someone before matriculating at FSU. Three respondents said they had sexually assaulted someone after matriculating at FSU. Three respondents said they had sexually assaulted someone both before and after they had matriculated at FSU. Eight survey respondents said they were “not sure” if they had sexually assaulted someone.

Dean of Students Melinda Stoops said, “I am glad that the survey was conducted in a way that those six participants [the number of FSU survey respondents who admitted to sexually assaulting someone while they were a student at FSU] felt confident enough about their anonymity as survey respondents to report that information. The more people who feel comfortable completing the survey and responding honestly to all questions, the more information we have to guide our education and prevention efforts.”

Stoops selected and sent out the Sexual Misconduct Climate Survey to all registered student email addresses in December 2014.  The survey results were evaluated and recorded in the spring of 2015. EverFi, the company which provides training on alcohol awareness and sexual misconduct to incoming students, supplied the survey to FSU free of charge.

According to the Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention and Education (SHAPE) website, students are “severely impacted by sexual assault psychologically and physically in academics, in employment and in interpersonal relationships.”

Dexter said in the future, the administration might use a different vendor to break down information more effectively and make a few tweaks to language since the survey was “flawed.” She added they did not have “access to qualitative responses … even though there was an option for students to put it in there.

“For the effort of that first year, I think it gave us a really good baseline to be working with,” said Dexter.

The Sexual Misconduct Climate Survey was designed to provide an understanding of what is happening on campus and what training efforts might be implemented to prevent sexual violence as part of the Equal Opportunity Plan utilized by the nine Massachusetts state universities, according to Dexter.

Unwanted Sexual Contact

Dexter said the survey also showed students experienced sexual assault at a greater rate prior to enrolling at FSU. Dexter stressed the importance of educating youth and providing them with “resources, response options and support.”

Twenty-three student respondents said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact through physical force or threat of harm while attending FSU. Forty-five student respondents faced unwanted sexual contact involving force or threat of harm before enrolling at FSU. Nine survey respondents said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact both before and after attending FSU. Eleven said they were “not sure.”

The survey found that twenty-seven students indicated they experienced unwanted sexual contact through verbal or non-physical coercion while enrolled at FSU. Fifty-two indicated this had happened before they matriculated at FSU, while twenty-four students said they had experienced verbal or non-physical coercion before and after their matriculation at FSU. Eighteen survey respondents said they were “not sure.”

Nineteen students said they experienced unwanted sexual contact while passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated or asleep while attending FSU. Twenty said this had happened to them before they had arrived at FSU, and five said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact while incapacitated both before and after their matriculation at FSU. Twelve survey respondents said they were “not sure.”

The survey indicated 60 percent of the reported sexual assaults happened off campus, while 40 percent happened on campus.

Bailey McLernon, a senior, said most assaults happen off campus at social situations. She said the best thing to do is be aware of one’s surroundings.

“Set boundaries before you are too intoxicated to make rational decisions. Boundaries are important and communication is key,” said McLernon.

She added, “If you justify your actions based on a previous decision you made, you still made that initial choice to take that drug or drink alcohol. People need to be aware of their surroundings when they are in those types of situations.”

Scott Carucci, a junior, believes college students go out and drink to enjoy themselves. It doesn’t mean they are looking to hook up with someone, he said.

He added, “For me personally as a man, if I know that I’m drunk, and she is drunker, then I should be taking care of her. … Even if she says ‘Yes,’ I am still not going to do it because it is not morally right for me.”

Perpetrators

Ninety-four percent of those reporting unwanted sexual contact said their perpetrators were male.

Student Trustee Fernando Rodriguez, a senior, said the numbers were “appalling.

“For six students to be comfortable enough to admit they sexually assaulted someone on campus is scary,” said Rodriguez. “They’re comfortable enough with reporting this and not fearing consequences. … There are over 4,000 students on this campus, and only 625 took the survey, so I imagine the number is actually larger. These numbers are not just statistics – they are lives of students that have been drastically changed by an assault. The trauma and feelings these students carry every day is not something I take lightly.”

Nick Tersigni, a senior, said the numbers were unsettling.

“Number one, it’s kind of stupid on their part to actually admit it,” said Tersigni, referring to the six student respondents who admitted to sexually assaulting someone after enrolling at FSU. “At the same time, at least they know and are coming forward about it. In that case, you don’t know how severe that situation was. You never really know how it really goes down.

… Some people like to not necessarily make up stuff, but stretch the truth for either personal gain, money or to make someone look bad.”

Dexter said, “In the vast majority of cases, these are not strangers. These are people that individuals are acquainted with to at least to some degree.

“Somewhere along the line, there are some [people] who understand that it wasn’t a miscommunication. … They know they were having sexual contact without consent,” she added.

Stalking and Intimate partner violence

The survey found that “as many as 20 percent” of student respondents had experienced stalking, and “as many as 46 percent” had experienced intimate partner violence, according to the SHAPE year-end report.

These behaviors, which indicate stalking and are defined in the survey, include an attempt to communicate against someone’s will, being spied on, vandalizing properties or showing up in places the perpetrator has no business being. Ninety-five student respondents said they experienced these behaviors more than once.

Behaviors that may be intimate partner violence include name calling, accusations of paying too much attention to someone else, pressuring to have sex, throwing, hitting or smashing something, choking or strangling, using physical force to have sex and threatening to harm their partner using a knife, gun or other weapon.

Only five percent of students who had experienced intimate partner violence reported the experience or sought out resources and assistance.

“Those numbers are significant,” said Dexter. “The lower-level behaviors might happen now and then in a relationship and it is not necessarily a sign of a larger problem, but these are all red flags. It shows the potential for relationships to become significantly problematic if people don’t feel they have the tools to be in a healthy relationship or they don’t feel empowered to leave an unhealthy relationship.”

Reporting sexual assault/Bystander action

Last spring, the Association of American Universities (AAU) conducted a sexual assault survey of 150,000 students at 27 colleges and universities. The AAU survey found one in four women had experienced unwanted sexual contact on campus.

Paulina Reagan, a senior, said, “It doesn’t surprise me with everything going on with other schools as well, but since this is a smaller school, I think the ratio is a bit too high.”

Reagan said she hopes FSU is working to improve protocols and to encourage students to report sexual assaults.

“The people who have been sexually assaulted haven’t said anything, or haven’t reported it, just because they are scared, so I feel that it’s not something they should be ashamed of,” said Reagan.

Both the AAU survey and the sexual misconduct survey found most sexual assaults go unreported. The top four reasons for not reporting, according to Dexter, are that the victim may feel shame, the victim may want to forget, the victim may feel fear of being blamed or the victim believes it is a private matter.

Eighteen percent of students who reported having been sexually assaulted told no one about the experience. This is consistent with national data, said Dexter.

“These are really personal experiences, and it gives us a context to how we address these reporting avenues and make them accessible to people,” she added.

One student, who wished to be called Amber, said she is not shocked by the results of the survey because of what she has heard and experienced.

“I feel that the administrators somewhat want to just pretend that everything is fine, when in reality, this is a problem students face every day,” said Amber. “I feel that a majority of students shrug it off, too, and say, ‘Oh, it was probably your fault,’ or ‘Are you sure you weren’t leading them on?’ Shit like that completely devalues the victim and the situation that has been brought into their life.”

Amber said she has lost many friends who did not share the same view. She believes there is a support system on campus and people who understand what the victim is going through.

As for victims not wanting to speak up, Amber said she understands.

“I totally understand because as a victim, I downplayed it and I didn’t tell anyone until the last week of school when it happened in the first two weeks,” said Amber. “I wasn’t scared – I just didn’t want people to think any less of me. Like there are still so many mixed emotions I feel that still haunt me, so I try my hardest to help those who want to speak up or have had that happen. Even if they don’t want to report it, it is always so much better to at least talk it out.”

Stoops said it is important these types of incidents be reported so that the student can be “provided with information and resources available to him or her.

“In addition, when a student reports an incident of sexual assault or misconduct, it allows University staff to make an assessment as to whether there is a threat to others in the community and to provide notice and warning to other students, if warranted,” she added. “Reports also provide information that can be helpful to the University in ongoing prevention efforts, such as education and training to all members of the community.”

Dexter said the members of the Title IX Committee are thinking about how to encourage students to make a report, such as providing accessible information, confidential options and showing what the procedure looks like after reporting.

“We aren’t going to approach them when they aren’t ready to be approached,” said Dexter. “We still leave the control in the hands of that individual.”

Dexter emphasized, “We are allowing perpetrators to remain in our community because we haven’t been able to detect them – because no one has come forward.”

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