Combatting sexual violence at UConn

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I’m sure most of you reading this have seen the email released by UConn Interim President Radenka Maric regarding UConn’s plans to implement a task force to help with the process of reviewing cases of sexual discrimination on campus. Appropriately named the President’s Task Force on Combating Sexual Violence and Supporting Our Students, the task force’s main jobs will be to provide support on victims’ behalf during the investigation process and aid in outlining better sexual discrimination/violence education for students and faculty. This will include cases of sexual assault or violence like that of Alexandra Docken, whose solo protest on Feb. 3 sparked larger demonstrations on campus in the following weeks. 

I first want to say that I believe this is a step in the right direction. It serves both as a means of improving the process of reviewing these cases and as a sign that UConn can listen to demands for change. Considering UConn’s tendency to release statements and emails to students without actually changing anything, the decision to implement this task force gives some hope that, with effort from the student body, real solutions can be enforced. 

While this change does show some positive impact on the part of administration, there are still other factors to consider regarding the implementation of this task force. One of the most important things to think about is changing what failed in the past. According to Docken and numerous other cases in the past, the main way UConn has failed victims is in its inability to thoroughly follow through with investigations. UConn’s yearly statute report, which includes data on reports and investigations for sexual assault on campus, supports this claim.

The report clearly indicates that in 22 filed reports, the accused individual attended UConn. Despite this, only three of these cases were investigated — a shockingly low number compared to the number of applicable reports. Even in investigated cases, UConn has a history of mishandling matters, which led to an expensive lawsuit less than a decade ago and reformed Title IX implementation. Some examples of these cases include neglecting to offer mental health resources to a victim of sexual assault and allowing an expelled, proven assaulter to appeal back onto campus without alerting the victim.

The truth is that even if your case manages to get investigated and decided upon in your favor at UConn, so much can still go wrong. This is a major reason why so many victims don’t report at all. Having a system in place that barely works reflects poorly on the university and allows people who are already suffering to do so alone, which in turn deters other victims from coming forward.

Time and time again, even when UConn conducts one of its rare investigations, it often fails to meaningfully help the victim, as shown by the number of people who have recently stepped forward to complain about the way UConn handles Title IX. A task force of new individuals who want to help make the system easier to understand and navigate is a great idea on paper, but to really estimate its effectiveness, we need to look at how Title IX has been implemented in other universities.

Sexual assault awareness month is in April and these books discuss rape culture. The culture surrounding sex on college campuses needs a change. Courtesy of Wikimedia

Harvard University appointed a sexual assault task force in 2014 to assist with the process of Title IX investigations and education, much like UConn. After a year of operation, the Harvard task force wrote a letter to explain to then-Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust that while the task force had seen some success, its efforts indicated that more had to be done by the university to curb sexual assault. The task force concluded that more money needed to go into resources for education and late-night transportation, and that the culture surrounding sex on campus needed an overall change. 

The Harvard task force team is a great example of good intentions being followed by improper execution. It demonstrates that a program that combats sexual assault is only as effective as the administration allows it to be. We must recognize this at UConn. 

Having a new task force is not a solution to the systemic disregarding of sexual assault victims. Having a new task force is not a solution to the indifference of many students when it comes to sex discrimination. Most importantly, having a new task force does not serve to actively prevent sexual assault on campus.  

The Protect Our Pack training module every student takes for orientation has proven to be ineffective for a relatively sizable number of people. Both from the admitted shortcomings of other programs and the clear shortcomings of UConn’s system, it’s easy to see that what is in place now is not enough. The education about preventing sexual violence needs to have more content and be more personal. It wasn’t uncommon during the weeks of protest to hear people joke about Dockens and sexual assault in general. This insensitivity needs to be stopped at its roots, as no matter how effective the task force is at helping with investigation, it also needs to address this trend of indifference.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that student activism is what helped to take this first step. If we want this task force to be effective, we need to continue to push for change. Holding administration and the task force accountable in the coming months and years will be imperative if we want this change to be permanent and positive. By continuing to protest when needed and rally behind victims, we can keep being heard and pushing for momentum. 

At the end of the day, seeing the UConn administration try to change the university for the better is definitely a good thing. The task force has a lot of potential to do a lot of good, both during and after the process of investigating sexual assault allegations. However, it is important to not grow complacent due to this positive change. With sexual assault reports all over the country in colleges and universities, it’s clear the conversation is far from over. It’s important that we work as a community to actively prevent sexual assault from happening, and both UConn’s administration and the student body must continue to do their parts to help. 

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