TAMPA — Prevention specialists at local colleges say they welcome a call Wednesday by President Barack Obama to fight an epidemic of sexual assault on U.S. campuses, with representatives of three schools saying they believe they’re ahead of the game when it comes to safety.
Obama said he would convene a task force to provide recommendations on how to prevent and respond to sexual assault on campus, increase public awareness of each school’s track record on the issue and hold schools accountable if they don’t respond to the problem.
“I’m very pleased that the president is turning attention to this,” said Nanci Newton, director of the Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention at the University of South Florida. “I think that for it to be taken as seriously as it needs to be taken, particularly by the general public, it needs to come from the top down. If the president of the United States is committed to ending sexual violence, how much bigger can it get?”
Obama said Wednesday no one in America is more at risk of rape or assault than college women. Twenty to 25 percent of college women are victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault during their college years, according to a report by Students Active for Ending Rape, citing National Institute of Justice and Bureau of Justice statistics.
“We definitely recognize a problem,” said Sabrina Griffith, associate director of residence life at the University of Tampa. “Having something on the national forefront, where families are looking at it and more people are aware of it outside academics, helps even more.”
A common strategy at USF, UT and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg is to face the issue head-on.
“The best way that we can handle this is by having open discussions and by bringing it forward to discuss it, especially when you have young adults who can discuss sexual health in a positive manner,” said Adam Colby, director of emergency management and campus safety at Eckerd.
According to Students Active for Ending Rape, about nine in 10 college women who are victims of rape or attempted rape know their assailant. For that reason, much of the effort at the local schools focuses on healthy relationships — and alcohol safety.
At USF, a Relationship Equality and Antiviolence League, or REAL, is primarily made up of male peer educators whose goal is to reach other male students and get them engaged in stopping violence against women.
Eckerd’s “Autumn Term” is a program for freshmen that brings them to campus a month before their peers for similar lessons in making smart decisions in a new college environment when it comes to drugs and alcohol; intervening on behalf of a friend; and “ensuring that (students) have an open dialogue with their partner — when someone says no, they mean no,” said Colby.
The schools also focus on protection. At UT, safety officers trained in “RAD,” or rape aggression defense, teach students self-defense tactics.
USF students are familiar with the ubiquitous blue-light emergency stations, and can turn cell phones into mobile safety devices by activating a precautionary timer as they travel from one area of campus to another. If the timer isn’t canceled, university police are alerted.
And USF students can also summon a golf-cart ride to their vehicle or dorm room through the SafeTeam ride service.
All three schools provide extensive victim advocate services.
Nonetheless, “no system is perfect,” said UT’s Griffith. “If there were, we wouldn’t have the issue.”
Universities are required to report certain criminal statistics according to federal law. UT reported two forcible sexual offenses on- or off-campus in 2010, three in 2011 and seven in 2012, the latest figures available.
The figures are nine, one and seven for USF, and five each year at Eckerd.
The Department of Education has investigated and fined several schools around the country for failing to report crimes accurately.
On Wednesday, Obama said he was speaking out as president and the father of two daughters, and that men must express outrage to stop the crime.
“We need to encourage young people, men and women, to realize that sexual assault is simply unacceptable,” the president said. “And they’re going to have to summon the bravery to stand up and say so, especially when the social pressure to keep quiet or to go along can be very intense.”
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.