Why Schools Should Alert Students To Campus Acquaintance Rapes
Last week, I wrote a piece about why some universities are reluctant to alert students to acquaintance rapes that are committed on campus. This weekend, that hands-off policy was on full display at George Mason University, where officials refused to send an alert in response to a reported sexual assault because "they don't believe there is a threat to the campus community."
As I noted last week, most colleges and universities are legally required to issue a "timely warning" when crimes occur on campus that pose an "on-going threat" to students or staff. But deciding which crimes constitute an on-going threat is a task largely left to each university's discretion—and most schools generally don't think that acquaintance rapes fit the bill.
That being said, schools are in no way obligated to only send alerts for crimes they deem to be "on-going threats." There are plenty of reasons, beyond legal compliance, for schools to consider sending a timely warning in the case of an acquaintance rape. This WUSA9 story, about an acquaintance sexual assault reported in a GMU dorm early Sunday morning, illustrates several reasons for doing this:
1. Students want information about what's going on on campus: At GMU, many students learned of the reported assault after noticing "lots of police activity" on campus; releasing an alert detailing the nature of the police activity can help inform and reassure students.
George Mason University police are investigating an alleged sex assault on campus. Campus officials did not send out an alert to students. They say they don't believe there is a threat to the campus community. But It's the lack of information about the assault that has some students worried. Katie Horn is a freshman and was heading to church Sunday morning when she noticed lots of police activity. She says, "There was a group of them. There were three cop cars sitting at the entrance. Three state troopers talking and two George Mason University police officers."
2. Students are often undereducated on the problem of acquaintance rapes on campus. Even though college-aged women are four times more likely than other women to experience sexual assault, one GMU student expressed "shock" that anything like that could happen on her campus. Another hoped that the accusation was false (funny how that works), and said that the police presence made the incident seem "more serious":
Campus officials say the freshman was acquainted with her attacker. Horn says, "I'm shocked, I've never heard anything like that happening at Mason." George Mason University Police would not go on camera Sunday, but would only say they are investigating an alleged sex assault on campus and that Fairfax County Police are helping them with the case. Police arrived at Madison Hall, a co-ed dorm, located at Presidents Park on campus around 5 o'clock Sunday morning. Katie Blacklege is a GMU freshman and says, "It's awful, I hope it's not true. but if there were actually police here, it seems more serious."
3. Students are only prepared to protect themselves against stranger rapes. Even when informed of an acquaintance rape, students defer back to safety precautions for avoiding the much less likely scenario of a stranger rape. One student worried about how easy it is for strangers to access her dorm, and said she would take more precautions while running alone at night. In fact, acquaintance rapists operate by subverting these safety precautions—offering to escort their victims home so that they are not walking home "alone," or convincing their victims to willingly grant them access to their rooms.
Students use key cards to swipe themselves in and get access between halls. But students say that's a false sense of security. French says, "People let people in all the time. There are so many doors you can go into. There are a lot of young women who walk around at night by themselves, like me, I run at night by myself. Knowing that, that happened, I'll be more cautious about that."
4. Parents are perhaps even more hideously misinformed about these realities than students are. One student's father attributed acquaintance rape to a "sign of the times," an inevitable consequence of putting too many people together in one space, and "weekends":
Katie Horn's parents visit their daughter every Sunday and are not surprised to find trouble on college campuses. Art Horn says, "It disturbs you, but it's the sign of the times. When you put this many people together and on the weekend, things can happen.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery