Em-URGE-ing Voices

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Student Leaders at the University of Texas are Taking Campus Safety into their Own Hands

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December 6, 2013

Students on college campuses around the country are preparing for finals which means lots of caffeine, minimal amounts of sleep, and long nights at the school library. Drowning in finals myself, I sometimes don’t leave the 24-hour school library until late at night. Walking back to my car in pitch darkness and half awake, I walk past a myriad of other sleep-deprived students who all have to walk almost a mile or more back to their apartments.

What seems like a typical college finals night for many university students might be a dangerous venture back home. The University of Texas, spans over five blocks each way with over 50,000 students in attendance. With such a huge campus, it’s easy for students to end up walking a huge distance, often times alone. Just this past summer, while attending summer school, everyone in my accounting class received a text message alert reporting a kidnapping in the West Campus area. West Campus, a huge Austin property where a majority of UT students live, became a dangerous environment for students.

Kidnapped by two men, sexually assaulted, and then thrown under an Austin bridge, a resident of one of the West Campus apartments became a target on the huge campus. West Campus has a history of being infamous for multiple attacks on UT students involving bleach balloons thrown at students of color, racial slurs yelled across balconies, and now sexual violence. It was good to know that the university kept their students informed and alerted when an event like that happened, but response to the situation was out of the university’s hands.

West Campus, engrained in the minds of UT longhorns as a part of campus culture, students don’t realize that the actual property is under the jurisdiction of the Austin Police Department, not UT’s. Though UTPD’s office is located just a couple blocks away from most West Campus apartments, when any incident occurs where students have to call police, they must wait for Austin’s police to show up and respond. Though efforts have been made to extend UTPD’s jurisdiction, this issue still poses a huge problem for students who can’t receive immediate help from campus police. With such a recent event and not much coverage on it, assessing the campus climate on sexual violence became extremely important. In 2012, only three rape cases and four sexual assaults were reported to UTPD, this doesn’t even begin to include violence off-campus.

UT is known as a party school and with a multitude of fraternity and sorority houses located right in the center of West Campus, we can’t even begin to fathom what happens at college parties.

Erin Burrows, prevention and outreach specialist at Voices Against Violence, a violence prevention and response program on campus, says that statistically, “alcohol is involved with over 70% of sexual assaults and therefore there is a connection between party culture and increased risk of sexual violence.”

Erin has done amazing work on campus by hosting workshops like Get Sexy, Get Consent in the Gender and Sexuality Center. Erin explains that VAV “is necessary as college-aged students are one of the highest risk populations for issues of sexual and relationship violence and stalking.”

Through education and workshops, Erin hopes to alter beliefs and stigmas about sexual violence. “We live in a society that stigmatizes people that have experienced violence… every time we talk about violence and how to build a safer campus, we are one step closer to ending violence.” Under the Counseling and Mental Health Center, the department has hotlines, appointments, and a multitude of other services to not only prevent violence, but also offer relief for survivors.

Alongside the university providing resources to students like VAV, student leaders on campus are also making initiatives to make the campus safer for students. Leigh Larson, the current agency director of SURE walk, a program launched three years ago, has prevented possible nighttime sexual assault incidents. SURE, or Students United for Rape Elimination, is a volunteer-based agency which falls under UT’s Student Government branches. I’ve seen the group in front of the main school library willing to walk students home late at night. The service is offered Monday to Thursday nights from 10pm until 2am. A quick call or email and SURE walk volunteers, a guy and a girl, will walk home with students back to their apartments during late nights of studying. Larson indicates, “approximately 5 students use this service per week through the semester, with many more using it during finals week. Volunteers go through training with UTPD and must be members of an organization for accountability reasons.” Larson even told me that they plan to launch a phone app in February for easy requests to be walked home. It’s comforting to know that students can feel safe walking home with UTPD trained volunteers after a long night of studying.

Sexualizing bodies and acting out on violent sexual desires is an inherent problem on college campuses. Student leaders need to take initiative making not only technical campus boundaries safe for students, but the entire campus culture a secure space. The summer incident was truly a horrific and terrifying one, but recognizing these two programs on campus hoping to address these problems is a great start. Hopefully, other college campuses around the country can adopt these programs and ensure the college experience is a safe and welcoming environment for all students.

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