College releases results from sexual assault survey

On October 8, President David A. Greene sent an email to Colby students, parents, and faculty detailing the results of the Higher Education Data Sharing (HEDS) Sexual Assault Campus Climate Survey from this past April. The survey, created and sponsored by the HEDS consortium at Wabash College, was sent to all 2014-2015 Colby students and asked them to assess their experiences with sexual violence at the College as well as their impressions of the work the College is doing.  Unlike the annual security report, which is required under the Clery Act, the HEDS survey is one that colleges choose to opt into. Similarly, the HEDS Consortium and participating colleges have no obligation to release the data once it is collected.

In his email, Greene called the results of the survey “deeply troubling.” While only 465 students, or 25% of the student body, responded to the survey, 12.5% of women and 3.8% of men who responded reported some form of sexual misconduct at Colby, totaling 44 students. This is a large discrepancy between the figures outlined in Colby’s annual security report, which accounted for four instances of forced sex offences and zero instances of non-forced sex offenses in 2014. However, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Jim Terhune, Director of the Gender and Sexual Diversity Program and Associate Pugh Center Director Emily Schusterbauer, and Senior Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, and Title IX Coordinator, Tashia Bradley all noted that discrepancies were natural in the survey.

Bradley noted that the annual security report only includes crime statistics, while the HEDS Survey looks at a broader range of misconduct. “That’s why there’s a discrepancy, because we’re not reporting about the same things,” Bradley said.

Schusterbauer echoed these sentiments, saying,“I think it is important to think a little bit about the way that sexual assault is defined in…state laws and laws that have to do with Clery reporting versus this particular survey versus our policy. Those are three different things potentially. So it’s conceivable to me that there are students who identify with how sexual assault was defined in this survey who may not have identified with how the Maine state law defines sexual assault or maybe don’t identify with how our policy identifies sexual assault.” Regardless of the number, Greene surmised the Administration’s position in the email: “A single member of our community enduring an unwanted sexual encounter, sexual misconduct, or sexual violence is one too many.”

When asked why the Administration decided to participate in the HEDS survey, Terhune said that the impression in Eustis was “the more we can learn, the better off we’re going to be.” Terhune also noted, “HEDS is a group that we use to participate in research for a number of things.” After HEDS developed the survey and with rumors that the White House may soon require campus climate surveys at higher-learning institutions, the Administration “wanted to be on the front end of that.” Schusterbauer also discussed the multifaceted benefits of the HEDS survey. “For me, the utility of a survey like this is not just to kind of gauge prevalence, which is important, but it’s also to help us understand a range of different issues related to sexual violence and sexual misconduct so that we can improve going forward.”

Some of the survey’s utility goes toward helping the Administration find areas of disconnect between their prevention and education programs, as well as student perception. One of the most telling statistics in the survey found that 55.3% of respondents “agree or strongly agree that there is a good support system at Colby for students going through difficult times.” Based on the statistic, Terhune stated, “clearly we need to do more awareness raising about support systems, clearly we need to do more to help people understand how the reporting process works and to have confidence in that.” However, both Terhune and Schusterbauer believe that the current education programs have shown success. “One of the things that came out of the HEDS data is that our students do seem to have a fair amount of information about how we define sexual misconduct, how to make a report, those kinds of things that we’re happy to see that students are retaining that information,” Schusterbauer said.

In the interviews with Terhune and Schusterbauer, both officials expressed a desire to increase student understanding to the options at their disposal. “It’s all about awareness,” Terhune said. “It’s about being out there as much as we possibly can… my feeling about the survey is [that] its helpful insofar as these data points [like the one on support systems] help us to understand where are there places we need to put more effort in to raise more awareness.”

Terhune and Schusterbauer also noted that the College has made strides in creating more opportunities for students to learn how to prevent sexual misconduct. The Administration’s current flagship effort toward increasing student education is the introduction of mandatory first year and second year peer education training on sexual violence. Schusterbauer, who spearheads the initiative, explained that the first year session focuses primarily on prevention, mainly “how we define sexual misconduct, our community standards around consent, practice some skills building communication into sexual encounters to make consent more clear…[and] how to help a friend who has experienced sexual assault,” while the sophomore training is designed to “develop more advanced bystander intervention skills.” Terhune and Schusterbauer both believe that these programs will help raise awareness. Terhune noted, “there is no 100 percent magic bullet, but awareness is so key to prevention, and prevention is what we need to be focused on.”

All members of the Administration were keenly aware that sometimes prevention is not enough and that the reporting system must be just as robust. According to the HEDS survey, only seven victims (16.3 percent) reported the misconduct to Colby faculty, staff, or administrators. Dr. Bradley noted that there are several barriers that keep students from reporting, including the idea of reporting in itself. Bradley believes that some people would prefer not having to report misconduct to a stranger: “Why would I report to this person? Why would I want this person to know this about me?” Others might be fearful of the process that reporting entails, especially on such a small campus. Feminist Alliance Executive Board member Sierra Fuller ’18 believes that other factors include “the fact that students believe nothing is going to get done, but also part of that is dealing with survivor guilt and feeling victimized…there’s a huge culture of guilt around sexual assault.” One commonality among all of the Administrators interviewed was their desire to leave the choice of reporting up to the survivor.

When asked if the Administration had any desire to reach out to victims and ask them to report, Bradley noted that approach might not always be beneficial. “I think there’s a moment where you think about best practices around this work, and ways in which we can traumatize someone or re-traumatize, or people feel like they don’t have ownership or kind of create an environment where people feel as though ‘I did something wrong because I didn’t report something. I don’t want to create that environment. There’s a fine balance and we’re trying to get there. This is the thing about this work, it’s not perfect, but we’re trying to get there.” Schusterbauer echoed these sentiments, saying “we want to encourage reporting, but we also want to recognize that reporting may not feel like the right decision for some people and that’s okay. We want to encourage reporting so that we can respond to incidents and make the campus safer, but we also want to recognize that people have deeply personal reasons for not reporting.” Terhune added that one of the primary objectives of the Administration is “to provide a safe space for anybody who’s coming forward with a report and to honor and respect their privacy.”

Ultimately, the HEDS survey has given the community another tool to help minimize the plight of sexual misconduct at Colby. Though the Administration has made a concerted effort thus far, Eustis is equally aware that there is still a long way to go. In closing, Terhune echoed Greene’s sentiments that one is too many. “Clearly we have issues and problems associated with sexual misconduct and violence on our campus, and any of that is too much. I feel good about the work that Emily is doing and Tashia is doing and others on our campus are doing to try and move the needle on that. I think there’s good work that’s done, I think that…transparency is a really positive thing…the more we shine a light on the issue, the more likely we are to prevent…but I don’t know how anyone could look at survey results that show any level of sexual violence on campus and feel good about that.”