Content warning: sexual violence, domestic abuse
This past week, the University of Connecticut has seen an increase in conversation regarding sexual violence, specifically surrounding the university’s failure to support survivors. This conversation was first sparked by a lone protest by UConn student Alexandra Docken outside the Rowe Center for Undergraduate Education on Thursday, Feb. 3. She explained the story of how her sexual assault case against another student was mishandled by the university in an attempt to silence her. Since then, multiple student-run protests have occurred on campus. Additionally, UConn students received an email communication from UConn’s Interim President Dr. Radenka Maric on the topic.
In said email, Maric mentions she has, “… asked Dean of Students Elly Daugherty to join me in bringing together students, staff, and faculty to assess our current educational programs for students (including orientation and online trainings), how we support victims of sexual violence, and the university’s processes regarding sexual assault and intimate partner violence.” She goes on to claim, “Determining what more we can do will be an essential question for me and my administration.”
Frankly, this email is insulting. There is no combination of words that can remedy the detrimental effects UConn’s mishandling of sexual assault cases has had on survivors. It does not suffice to say that the university wants to support survivors when its actions overall reflect the opposite. Hiding the issue for the sake of reputation, not using trauma-informed responses when helping survivors, giving ultimatums and discouraging pursuit of legal action, along with not properly investigating cases in the first place, are despicable norms from UConn in reported cases of sexual violence. It’s disgusting to have to beg to be treated with respect or as if you have any value outside of your tuition payment if something traumatic happens to you on campus.
However, my real issue with the email is its mentioning of evaluating educational programs including orientation and online trainings. This is referring to the Protect Our Pack online module that all incoming students are required to complete. The website describes Protect Our Pack as a bystander intervention program covering a variety of issues including sexual assault, intimate partner violence, stalking and bias-related situations.
I completed the module as a freshman. Everyone did. These programs are necessary starting points for conversations regarding safety on the college campus. However, that’s all they are: starting points. A one-time lesson is not enough to show students that sexual violence will not be tolerated at UConn, nor is it enough to show survivors that they are valued as more than a nuisance to the UConn administration. Furthermore, if these lessons on consent are ever reiterated once on UConn’s campus, for example by RA’s in floor meetings, it is brushed aside as something “everyone knows.” It’s not taken seriously by all students and staff, and certainly not by the administration, and thus is still such a prevalent issue on our campus.
Additionally, Protect Our Pack and other orientation videos related to campus safety focus on themes fueled by rape culture, such as how to not get too drunk, watching your drink like a hawk and never walking alone at night. Clearly, this is harmful. Yes, we want students to be educated regarding alcohol and other drugs, and also preventing violence. However, the presentation of these themes focuses on protecting yourself from attack, rather than the idea of not attacking other students. It’s subtle victim-blaming before any violence even occurs. This therefore makes it that much easier to accept as normal from the UConn administration and authorities after violence does occur.
Moreover, it is hypocritical of UConn to ask us to protect each other, to rely on each other for safety, when they do not protect survivors, nor do they remove abusers from campus. As protestors yelled on both Monday and Wednesday, “What happened to Protect Our Pack, UConn?” Why is it only up to your students to protect themselves? Why do you advocate for protection without supporting victims yourself?
While the problem is not just here, UConn needs to address their own failings and create an environment where sexual violence is intolerable. Students should feel safe and protected at school and abusers should be held accountable. “Protect Our Pack” is an empty plea from the university, one that proves they will not help us and thus we must rely on each other. But it shouldn’t be this way, and it can be fixed, if UConn did more than write meaningless emails in response to student outrage. UConn, do better.