When Maggi Driscoll left her suburban Philadelphia home to begin college at the University of Colorado Boulder, she was excited about new classes and new friends.
In the few weeks she's been there, there’s been just thing troubling her: According to data from a comprehensive sexual misconduct survey conducted by the university, 28 percent of female undergraduates say they were sexually assaulted during their time at school. Sexual assault ranged from unwanted touching to rape.
“I’m really involved in women’s issues and I thought I knew a lot about sexual assault,’” Driscoll, 18, said. “I didn’t know this stat.’”
Special section: Get tips and advice about college at College Game Plan
As a freshman, Driscoll is among a cohort of students across the country at particular risk for what university administrators and sexual violence experts refer to as the “red zone,” a period from the beginning of fall semester to about Thanksgiving break when sexual assaults on U.S. college campuses seem to spike. Although every student, regardless of age or gender, is at risk, freshman females are the most vulnerable.
The Red Zone is Real
According to a 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study, more than 50 percent of college sexual assaults occur in August, September, October, or November. The survey also showed that women are mostly likely to be victimized early in their college tenure.
The CU Boulder survey also showed that slightly more than 70 percent of sexual assaults happen during fall semester, with more than 65 percent of those assaults happening to first-year students.
“Sometimes with all this newfound freedom and vast amounts of time, especially at the beginning of the year, the social drive is much higher than academic performance,” said Teresa Wroe, director of Prevention and Education at CU Boulder’s Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance.
“But it’s a high-risk time for many different things, including alcohol and drugs, and it can be hard for young students to figure out who and what may be a problem.”
Changing the culture
CU Boulder is far from the only university grappling with these issues.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Association of American Universities, nearly 12 percent of student respondents across 27 universities reported non-consensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of force, or incapacitation. The incidence of sexual assault and misconduct due to physical intimidation or incapacitation among female undergrads was slightly more than 23 percent, including nearly 11 percent who experienced penetration.
Fortunately, there is a big push to combat campus sexual assaults — in large part due to the 2011 Title IX guidance of the so-called “Dear Colleague” letter released by the federal government. It required schools to address complaints of sexual violence or risk losing federal funding, explains Anne Ard, Executive Director at Centre County Women’s Resource Center in State College, Pennsylvania. Schools are also required by the Clery and Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act to have sexual assault awareness and prevention programs.
“A lot of schools are really focusing on how students can keep themselves safe from sexual assault, which really puts the onus on the victim,” said Ard, whose organization assisted 104 Penn State students with sexual and relationship violence issues from July 2014 through June 2015. “The much harder work is to change the culture and to address those issues of consent.”
She is, however, hopeful about the various initiatives schools are taking.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and colleges and universities are taking this much more seriously than ever before,” she said. “There’s also an activism and a better understanding on part of the students.”
One tactic to reduce sexual assaults is bystander intervention training.
At Penn State, a new "Stand for State" program trains students and others across its 20 campuses on how to effectively step in when someone is in a dangerous situation.
According to the 2015 Penn State's Task Force on Sexual Assault and Harassment, about 25 percent of female students on the college's main campus said they experienced sexual assault while at the university.
At CU Boulder, all incoming freshmen and transfer students must take two online training classes that address sexual violence before they can register for spring semester.
The online training deals with issues of consent, among other topics. It also includes a quiz; if students don’t pass, they don’t get credit.
The school also requires these students to attend an in-person bystander invention seminar, geared to helping students identify how they might help a friend — or stranger — who may be in an unsafe situation.
“Acting as a concerned bystander is a real challenge for people, and it’s more difficult than people think,” Wroe said. The class deals with multiple scenarios and different ways people may be able to intervene, such as distraction or delegation — versus a more direct approach — before a situation gets out of hand.
It's Everyone's Responsibility 'To Step Up'
Omer Sarwana is a 20-year-old CU Denver student majoring in information systems and minoring in math, economics and leadership studies. He’s also a student government leader.
Bystander intervention isn’t mandatory at his school, but he feels it vital.
“I have three sisters, and if I go to a party or someplace and see something that just doesn’t seem right, it is my responsibility to go up to a girl, even if she’s just some random girl I don’t really know, and make sure everything is OK,” he said.
Sarwana also believes it’s everyone’s responsibility to step up.
“If I don’t do it, or you don’t do it, there’s a good chance no one will do it, and that’s when problems happen.”
There are also practical things that freshmen can do to protect themselves.
“Students use the buddy system all the time, but they need some skills and forethought when things don’t go as planned,” Wroe said.
Find People You Trust
Driscoll, the CU Boulder freshman, doesn’t want to spend her next four years scared. But she doesn’t "want to be a statistic, either,” she said.
“I surround myself with people I trust. I stay in groups of people I trust. And if I can walk home with people I trust, why wouldn’t I?”
Sarwana has some advice for freshmen.
“Look, there isn’t a rapist behind every corner,” Sarwana said. “But getting a little scared may make someone more aware of their surroundings. And getting scared is a better outcome than getting sexually harassed or raped while in college.”