Em-URGE-ing Voices

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Protect This House: Women Deserve Safe Campuses

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September 4, 2014

Just in time for a return back to campus, the past two weeks has featured a number of headlines about sexual violence against women: a nail polish that detects one of the most common date rape drugs, the calculated hacking and release of dozens of celebrities’ nude photos from their iCloud accounts, a student at Columbia University who is protesting the school’s lack of justice about her rape by carrying around a mattress, and another university that deemed community service too harsh a punishment for a man who raped another student. Regardless of whether she is a senior who has spent the past three years on campus learning to avoid fraternity houses after dark or a freshman joking with her new classmates that her dad bought her a pink can of pepper spray, “because it’s cute, see”  — new students arrive on campus with the knowledge that they might not leave it alive. That’s not necessarily hyperbole.

The list of 76 colleges and universities facing federal investigation for their (mis)management of Title IX includes schools from all over the country; the institutions facing investigations for how they have handled reports of sexual violence on their campuses is not limited to schools in conservative states, small liberal arts institutions, rural areas, community colleges, state schools…

It is not a matter of how large or small the college or university’s endowment is or whether their student body skews especially wealthy or white or politically liberal or devoutly religious. This tells us that whatever stereotypes, biases, or prejudices we have about the people who rape and the people who are assaulted by them, sexual violence against women is pandemic. We cannot rely on our campus’ demographics to protect us from sexual assault or entice us to believe that if someone sexually violates us, we will have definite support from our peers.

But we should be able to rely on our administrations. Let us remember that colleges and universities are businesses and, like any other business, have donors to seduce and appease, investors to attract, and a profit margin to widen. I’m an optimist enough to have faith that these institutions also remember, for their part, that they are ones of higher learning and as such have a responsibility to their students to provide the best environment possible for learning. I’ve also spent enough time on campus, particularly as a student leader in sexual justice, to have developed a certain level of cynicism about these institutions’ general (un)willingness to actually do so.

The University of Alabama, my own campus, now requires incoming freshman and transfers to participate in Haven, a program that works to educate students on sexual and relationship violence. It’s the first year that we’ve had it here; before, the only kind of anti-violence program that was mandated we undergo was a brief section in AlcoholEdu.

Our Women’s Resource Center is well staffed with compassionate, intelligent counselors and offers support groups, as well as does a lot of work on campus to raise awareness about sexual violence against women and improve conditions on campus both in the classroom and outside of it. Our sexual harassment policy was fairly thoroughly updated in the past year. The University president sent a campus-wide message detailing policies, resources, and procedures for instances of sexual violence, something I cannot remember a University administrative official ever doing in my three years on campus.

While my school isn’t on the aforementioned list of 76 universities who have failed their students, none of the above means that it couldn’t be. The incidents at Columbia and Kansas remind us that our institutions can fail us at any time and easily so, even with outright disregard for our safety and well-being. Despite incredibly courageous students’ willingness to sacrifice their own emotional and psychological health, their support systems, and their livelihood to ensure that others receive the protections due them, colleges and universities seem more willing to endure public fallout than restructure their systems and build better ones. If a university is a business, then we students pay far too much in tuition and fees to be silenced and dismissed. Students of all genders, but especially those who are female and non-binary, deserve to attend colleges that not only can, but are willing to protect and defend them.

Women deserve a campus that’s safe, too.

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