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Preventing Sexual Assault on College Campuses


Claire Kaplan, UVA’s director of sexual and domestic violence services, speaks candidly about sexual assault prevention and the consequences of standing idly by.

By Lauren Reisig
August 2012

Claire KaplanCollege campuses are a unique environment where the intellectual and the social collide, and newfound freedoms are tested within the safety of the campus bubble. While this bubble fosters independence, the close living quarters and readily available alcohol often make them a breeding ground for sexual assault. Claire Kaplan, director of Sexual and Domestic Violence Services at the University of Virginia (UVA), recently spoke with Jewish Woman magazine about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. Kaplan provides a unique insight into both a university’s responsibility to protect its students, and students’ responsibility to protect themselves and their community.

Most universities, if not all, include sexual assault prevention discussions in new student orientations. But these safety measures can go by the wayside as many freshmen, newly sprung from home, feel a sense of liberation that often clouds their judgment. Kaplan advises students that if they remember nothing else, above all, “Trust your instincts. Use your judgment and follow it. If you feel that something is wrong, it is okay to do something about it…It doesn’t always mean you’re going to get humiliated or laughed at, and even if you are, so what! It’s important to do the right thing because you have to live with yourself.”

Kaplan concedes that the availability of alcohol complicates the situation. She admits that “being drunk is not helpful,” but also deems alcohol “the red herring” of sexual assault on college campuses. So while parents may instinctually want to steer their children toward schools with strict alcohol policies and low rates of reported sexual assaults, Kaplan offers an alternative viewpoint.

“Here’s what I would say to parents: If your child is looking at schools where they have a very low statistical record on sexual assault, take that with a grain of salt. And if they have none, run in the other direction! Because that means either they don’t know, which is bad, or they’re not telling the truth, which is bad.”

When a school reports a high number of sexual assaults, it doesn’t mean that the administration is failing its responsibility, Kaplan contends. “It may mean that the school is really doing its job, which is teaching students, which is offering services, and the students are coming forward to talk about incidents.” And Kaplan advises that you can always ask questions when you start investigating individual schools. Inquire about their prevention programs, especially primary prevention if their numbers are high.

“Primary prevention is teaching people the skills to be aware and understand what they are seeing and what they are experiencing. The focus is on a healthy lifestyle, healthy choices and personal empowerment in the context of social justice.” Kaplan explains. “The other thing they’re learning is what is the best way to respond: To respond immediately, to respond safely, to understand what you’re looking at.”

The fact remains that regardless of a school’s culture or policies, sexual assault is everywhere. “There is not one institution that is exempt. I don’t care if it’s an all-girls school, or a faith-based school, it’s everywhere,” Kaplan says. Consequently, the statistics are staggering: One in five college women will be a victim of sexual assault. Of these assaults, 90% will involve an acquaintance of the victim, 75% will involve alcohol, and less than 5% of all incidents will be brought to the attention of administrators or the authorities.

And while these statistics are alarming, too often victims are blamed for the assault as a way to rationalize fears: “She should know better than to walk back from the library alone,” or, “She went to a party and didn’t watch her cup, what did she expect?” Victim blame only compounds the problem, and many universities are affirming this by adopting bystander intervention as primary prevention.

Kaplan remarks that as a Jewish woman, social activism is ingrained in her nature, as is the refusal to be an idle bystander. This mentality is essential to her success as SDVS director, and her championing of primary prevention programs, namely bystander intervention. Bystander education teaches peers not to look at women as victims and men as perpetrators, but instead to treat everyone as a bystander, responsible for ensuring the safety of fellow members of their community. The implementation of UVA's own student-run bystander education program, Get Grounded: Step Up! broadened the reach of bystander education to a large cross-section of the University community, including students, faculty and staff. “The notion of bystander education is now on everyone’s lips, which it wasn’t before.” Kaplan says optimistically. “We had made attempts in the past to try and do some of this stuff, but it didn’t catch on…Sadly, the whole incident with Yeardley Love and George Huguely is really what compelled students to do this.”

Unfortunately, as Kaplan said, it often takes a tragedy to bring this pervasive issue to public attention. In the Love and Huguely case, a UVA lacrosse player killed his ex-girlfriend just two weeks before graduation ceremonies in May 2010. Love’s death rocked the UVA campus, and the entire nation. The media reported on the pair’s tumultuous courtship– young love turned violent, resulting in the tragic and all too common end to an abusive relationship. Reports surfaced that friends of the couple had prior knowledge of the abuse, but these friends–in essence, bystanders– did not know how to intervene. Get Grounded and other primary prevention programs provide students with the necessary resources and tools to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

By the time George Huguely was convicted of second-degree murder in Yeardley Love’s death this past February, the media had already moved on to track allegations of abuse on another college campus; all eyes were now on Pennsylvania State University. Jerry Sandusky, an assistant coach of Penn State’s once illustrious football team, was being accused of multiple counts of child sexual abuse. Reports detailed the chilling account of abuse in the Penn State locker rooms, the scope and severity of which grew as the investigation progressed. During the course of the trial, it was revealed that numerous people were aware of the incidents, yet no one intervened. Sandusky was ultimately convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse, involving 10 victims, but one has to wonder how many of these victims could have been spared had someone interceded. For decades, coaches and university staff simply turned a blind eye – a non-action deemed unconscionable and unforgivable in the court of public opinion. Kaplan offers a different explanation for the bystanders’ silence.

“In terms of the issue of child sexual abuse, my feeling is a lot of people don’t take action because they are ignorant of the signs and what actions to take,” Kaplan surmises. They may hope, she said, that “’If we just look the other way, it didn’t happen, or it’s not going to happen.’ That’s just wishful thinking.” The greatest consequence of their inaction, Kaplan says, are the walking wounded, who suffer this fate simply “because you looked the other way.”

Kaplan’s perspective is not just one of an educator, but also one of a survivor, herself a victim of child sexual abuse. Kaplan also feels that she may have been destined to do this work, not merely because of her own experiences, but also those of her great-grandmother. “Of course I can’t confirm this,” Kaplan says, “But my paternal great-grandmother in Russia died suddenly – we know my paternal great-grandfather was very abusive – and she was found dead lying on the floor in the house. My aunts believe that he killed her, and that my great-grandmother’s ghost is coming through me. I kind of like this idea, but who knows?”

Regardless of her motivations, Kaplan’s efforts, as well as those in similar positions at universities nationwide, are critical to preventing sexual abuse on college campuses. Bystander education will help ensure that looking the other way is never again an option. “The Jerry Sanduskys of the world will continue to operate and continue to do what they do, because they can,” Kaplan states. “And the only reason why they stop is because someone stops them, or they die…So the question is, “What are we doing to stop them?”

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