By Vivian Nunez
June 17, 2016
Credit : Pexels.

As a new class of rising seniors begin to map out their summer visits to college campuses, one important question that should be on every student and parent’s mind is where the college stands on the issue of campus sexual assault.

Currently there are over 200 colleges and universities being investigated for potentially having violated Title IX with regards to reported instances of sexual assault on campuses. The level of transparency for colleges, both on and off the list, varies on a case by case basis.

Nationally it’s found that one in five women will be sexually assaulted during their time in college and of those, less than five percent will report the assault.

A study out of Penn State University found that there’s a greater likelihood of students reporting a sexual assault to their parents or peers than it is for them to report it to school officials.

“The data shows that students tend to report incidents related to sexual misconduct to friends and peers and family members and parents, not to us,” said Damon Sims, Penn State’s vice president for student affairs, according to Inside Higher Ed. “I want to start a conversation with the parents’ program about how best to communicate messages around sexual misconduct. We’re trying to figure how to enlist their aid in trying to tackle the issue.“

While Sims is focused on how Penn State can use parent involvement as an extension to their prevention, awareness and support strategies for survivors, other organizations and leaders in the space are also trying to make parents an important part of the equation across all universities.

Sheri Heitker Dixon leads Keep Her Safe, an initiative whose goal is to empower parents to be active agents in the conversation around campus sexual assault. As the Founder and Executive Director of Keep Her Safe, Dixon has one very important goal in mind:

“The reason I started Keep Her Safe is because there was no organized advocacy for parent engagement. As consumers, parents can demand that colleges and universities deal effectively with this issue,” she told Generation Progress via email.

Dixon refers to a parent’s purchasing power when it comes to the tuition they would be contributing to their child’s education. While the financial aspect is one point of leverage for parents, there’s also the reality that as a unit, parents can change the tone of the conversation regarding campus sexual assault.

Beth Mitchneck, a professor of geography at the University of Arizona and mother to a soon-to-be college freshman, wrote an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education on how insightful it was for both her and her daughter to ask questions on campus sexual assault. They received a range of answers, but the best were from the schools that had tour guides who were well-versed on how sexual assault is handled on campus and echoed the transparency that the school itself embodies.

“At one, in a small town near summer resorts, our tour guide did give us a substantive answer — and, notably, he was our only male guide. When my daughter brought it up, he became thoughtful and said, ‘There has been a lot of campus activism around the issue, including a student-made documentary and a student-led group for men to discuss issues of masculinity.’ My daughter nodded her head and told the guide that was an interesting answer and the first to reveal campus activism. It made her feel like there was an open campus conversation, and I was thrilled that we received what seemed like a genuine response.”

Mitchneck continued:

“I would like to live in a world where I send my daughter to a college that is proud to discuss how it handles difficult issues, where learning how to have difficult conversations is a part of the educational process.”

Oftentimes it’s noted that colleges or universities with the higher number of reported instances of campus sexual assault have a more supportive environment for survivors to come forward in.

“[Schools with higher reported numbers] are acknowledging that this is something that happens on their campus, and they are taking the right steps to respond to it,” said Charlotte Poth, Sexual Violence Prevention & Awareness Coordinator for The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education, to Generation Progress. “They are not hiding reports under something else…in an effort to keep statistics on this issue low.”

For those survivors who do choose to come forward to their parents first, it’s important that parents understand the process behind how to deal with universities, but more importantly how to interact with their child under the reality of being a survivor.

“If your child does decide to report an assault to their college/university, this is where parents can play an active role in making sure the school adequately responds, and very importantly, holding the institution accountable if they fail to do so,” explains Poth.

For instance, the parents of a survivor at the University of Kansas are currently suing the University for false advertising on the basis that they claimed that students would be safe on campus dormitories, which did not hold in their daughter’s case.

“Our feeling is that the university cannot say their campus and their dorms are safe unless they really are safe,” stated Amanda Tackett, mother of the survivor, to the Kansas City Star.

Nonetheless, at the heart of a parent’s responsibility when their child comes forth as a survivor is to first and foremost ensure that their child is getting the help they want, in the manner that they want it.

“When someone is sexually assaulted, they have had all of their power stripped away from them,” explains Poth of The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education. “Their humanity has been forcibly denied…The most vital step for a parent to take in response is to empower their child. Give control back to them. Let your child decide if they want to go to the hospital, if they want to report, if they want to tell anyone.”

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