What is being done about the sexual assaults on campus?

Abigail Celoria, Culture Editor

Since last fall, ten sex offenses, encompassing sexual assaults and nonconsensual fondling, have been reported on campus to the UNCW Police Department. Of these ten, five occurred last semester within a four-week period, causing concern to a returning campus community. The most recent report, communicated through an initial email from OUR on Jan. 31 and an update on Feb. 25, reignited these worries.

Of the ten cases only one is listed as closed, while eight are under further investigation. In all cases except the closed one, the perpetrators were listed as known to the victims.

The tenth case, which is the most recent, concluded because the assault took place outside of UNCW’s police jurisdiction, as it did not occur on campus. Despite this new information, though, the question of what UNCW resources are doing to address sexual assaults on campus is ongoing. Many students have worried for their safety this academic year as these unusual cases drew their attention to the issue.

“For the most part, I didn’t feel any less safe than I already do, but it’s still not nice to know that it happened,” said Lynn McElhinney, a transfer student living in Seahawk Crossing, on the initial reporting. “It’s just a reminder that it can happen to anybody: yourself, your roommates, your friends.”

Jen August, director of the Collaboration for the Assault Response and Education (referred to as CARE) office on campus, offered some perspective on the recent influx in reports. “[W]e aren’t actually at an unusual number of sexual assaults,” said August. “What’s different about this year is that people are coming forward and reporting to police much more often than they have before.”

In 2020, UPD recorded eight reported instances of rape and five of fondling on campus. In 2019, there were seven instances of rape and three of fondling. In 2018, there were 11 instances of rape and six of fondling.

On college campuses, sexual assault is not an unlikely danger. RAINN reported that 13 percent of all college students, both undergraduate and graduate, experience some form of sexual assault “through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.” As August highlights, not everyone decides to report what happened to them, which makes gaining a truly accurate number of assaults difficult.

However, the influx of reports and university email notices led several students to question UNCW’s response.

A Sunny view of Chancellor’s walk from one end to the other. (Lauren Wessell)

The four offices on campus that handle sexual assault cases are CARE, Title IX, UPD and the Dean of Students. CARE’s efforts are half prevention, half response, being a confidential resource that provides sexual assault training and care for members of campus that have been impacted by sexual assault. Title IX handles on-campus assault policy enforcement, punishing convicted perpetrators on the academic level. The campus police department responds to criminal activity, which in the context of sexual assault cases means investigating a report and upholding any punitive actions. Finally, the Dean assigns academic punishment in the case of any university policy violation, not just sexual assaults.

Many students are not familiar with these offices, or the specific role they play in handling sexual assault.

“I don’t even know what some of those are,” said McElhinney. “I’ve never had to encounter them, nor anyone else I know since I’ve been on campus. If these are important organizations that are here for our benefit, the fact that I haven’t heard of some of them is probably an issue.”

When a student, remaining anonymous for safety reasons, contacted the police after experiencing a sexual assault on campus, she and her friends were not aware of their status as a mandatory reporting office, nor how lengthy the process would be.

“It seemed to be an optional resource to reach out to,” she said of her encounter with the police in the spring of last year. “I was a mess that night, I had just told the counseling office the whole story minutes before on the phone and they mentioned calling the police. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but my friend made the call, and we met a police officer at Dunkin around 1 a.m. to make a written statement. I had already told them the whole story two or three times on the phone before that.”

“And then I got mad, because like, I’ve lived this, I’ve talked to the counseling center, I talked to the police several times, and now I’m filling out a written statement,” she said. “This was all in one day, starting at, like, 8 p.m. that night.”

In reaction to the Jan. 28 incident and the general influx in reports, these offices have a similar goal of increasing their visibility on campus. CARE maintains the strongest presence on campus by giving presentations in conjunction with resident assistants, tabling around campus and posting flyers in many residential halls and buildings.

Recently, CARE combined its efforts with the other offices to increase the entire support system’s visibility. CARE, Title IX, UPD and the Dean of Students convened to hold several open forums where students could voice their questions and concerns. In the month of February, they held a student safety fair in the residential areas and also posted updated flyers in spaces across campus, detailing the contact information of CARE, Title IX and UPD.

Title IX, while not as front-facing as CARE, hopes to implement more visibility as well.

“In a lot of ways, our office is more responsive than preventative,” said Amber Grove, director of Title IX & Clery Compliance. “But we do want to help support that preventative space as well.”

They have added a programming request section to their website, allowing organizations across campus to partner with Title IX to educate members on topics pertaining to sexual conduct. The office also partners with CARE during orientation to do training. “That way we can get in front of folks before something happens to try to get the conversation started on consent and a safe Seahawk community,” said Grove.

An RA at Pelican Hall, a freshman dorm, recalled the positive impact visibility had on the community after the occurrence of several assaults at the beginning of last fall. She asked to remain anonymous. “We had three or four [cases] in Pelican and UPD came to talk to us,” she said. “That was the first time since I’ve been at UNCW that I’ve seen the school make an effort. That made people feel very safe, just hearing from the police, so I would like to see more of that happen where they are visible in these cases.”

However, visibility only goes so far, as its preventative abilities are limited. While officers regularly patrol residential halls—more frequently thanks to the decline of COVID-19 cases—their presence does not necessarily prevent assaults from occurring. Interim Chief of Police Chris Bertram recognized this.

“The problem is that the good majority of these incidents happen behind closed doors, usually between people who know each other,” said Bertram. “Us walking through the hall might prevent a student that is unknown to another student from doing something, and certainly anything that may happen in a common area. But behind a locked door, there’s not much we can do unless we are alerted.”

“If you call us because there is somebody in your room that you don’t want there, great, that’s what we’re here for,” Bertram said. “We will come and remove them. We don’t want people to not call us because they’re afraid they’ll get into trouble.”

In terms of preventing assaults across the campus community, another approach across all UNCW offices is in pushing bystander awareness. CARE, Title IX and UPD believe that everyone has a responsibility to keep the campus community safe.

“In the past, there used to be a lot of prevention messaging, but it was focused on what the victim should or shouldn’t do,” August said. “And that’s really victim-blaming, putting the brunt of our safety on the people who are being hurt. And we also know that, on the flip side, no one wants to be talked to as if they are perpetrators, and the people out there that are perpetrators don’t listen to our messaging anyway.”

CARE promotes the idea that every student should feel responsible for maintaining the safety of those around them. Through orientation and other programming, they train students in how to intervene in dangerous situations. UPD and the other UNCW sexual assault resources support this approach.

“We really try to emphasize the accountability and protection of each other, because that’s the best bet for any student,” said Bertram. “It really all comes down to being a good friend, watching out for your buddy.”

While an understandable approach in public settings, this will not greatly reduce the cases that occur when the assaulter does not display predatory behavior until no one else is around. The aforementioned student who shared her experience with sexual assault voiced her desire for more direct education on these types of situations.

“I think serious education about this should be a thing,” she said. “Tell me how to read the signs. Tell me how to watch out for predatory behavior.”

“People are just so uneducated on it, and I feel like there’s such a stigma around it still,” said an RA at Seahawk Village. She asked to remain anonymous. “I know a number of people that are victims of sexual assault, which is crazy. I shouldn’t. None of them have reported it or told many people because they are scared of what people will say. People don’t understand that even if that is not your intention, it can still happen if you’re not educated on consent and [it can] cause an intense amount of trauma for someone else.”

The skywalk between Fisher Student Center and Fisher University Union. (Lillianne Houghsten)

The recent incidents did not bring a change in any of these offices’ actual policies. The offices review their policies regularly regardless of what incidents have occurred. In the case of the recent report sent out on Jan. 31, the fact that it occurred off-campus put it out of UPD’s jurisdiction. In on-campus sexual assault cases, though, the victim has control over how campus resources proceed. They may choose the confidential route, seeking support from CARE only with no punishment to the offender, or the Title IX office and/or legal options.

The Title IX office controls educational punishments. The office conducts an investigation on the reported sexual assault and presents the information to an external adjudicator. If a conviction is made, the adjudicator, with Title IX’s advising, grants a sanction fitting the severity of the assault. This ranges from disciplinary probation to suspension.

If the victim chooses to take their case to court, however, UPD conducts the investigation. They present the information they gather to the district attorney, and they determine whether or not the case would be successful. At that point, it is either dismissed or goes to a trial.

There must be a proven violation of the Student Code of Conduct for the UNCW sexual assault support offices to take punitive action.

While visibility is on the way to addressing the student body’s concerns, most students want a higher level of communication from all of the UNCW assault support offices.

“I’d rather them be honest about these issues, rather than just trying to cover it up for UNCW’s own reputation,” said McElhinney on what she would like to see implemented. “If they are saying things about it and they’re making sure this is highlighted as an issue and giving us these resources, making them more accessible, being consistent, that’s what I’d really like to see. If they’re teaching it and they’re preaching it, I can’t really get upset when stuff happens, because it does happen.”

“The best way to approach us, I think for students, what we’re checking every day is our emails. So I know they have flyers and events and various other things, but it would be nice if they had some sort of newsletter that announced these things. Just giving more information on some of these organizations and making them easier for us to see. In the dorms, there are good opportunities for these organizations to display themselves, but in my building it’s mainly only ever events. You have to go dig for those things ourselves. Making them separate from the OUR announcements would probably be more beneficial.”

“Personally, I would like to see the Chancellor say something about it, to know the higher-ups are seeing what’s going on,” said the RA at Pelican Hall. “Our orientation was online, obviously, but I think talking to people about what exactly sexual assault is would be helpful, because there are so many misconceptions. And if you’re not paying attention that one time, yeah, I think it should be more than once.”

The student who shared her experience wished for a different type of communication—a more ongoing conversation between her and the resources she interacted with. Though she did say CARE, the Counseling Center, and UPD were helpful, she felt that her experience ended short of what she would have liked to see in support.

“It’s already hard to reach out to loved ones. It’s even harder to reach out to someone who you’re not sure will respond well to you. So having someone, anyone, who will reach out to you, like, once a month. It’s nice knowing you have a resource of someone who will listen and believe you, who won’t judge and will let you cry if you need to. And then eventually, it fades, and you don’t need it as much anymore.”

The UNCW sexual assault support offices are certainly dedicated to the student body, increasing visibility to keep the conversation around sexual assault constantly spinning. It is because of this dedication that they are still open to further conversation with the student body about what they can do to best serve victims.

“We’re always looking for more ways to reach out, so we are sure to consider any student feedback,” said Grove. “We want to be responsive to what UNCW needs.”

Contact information for CARE, Title IX, the Student Health Center, the Counseling Center, and UPD can all be found through their respective websites. CARE and the Counseling Center both have 24/7 hotlines.

Would you like to share your experience with any offices mentioned in this article? Do you have an opinion about how the university should handle sexual assault reports? Contact us at theseahawk@uncw.edu.