More than one in nine students said they experienced some form of nonconsensual sexual contact during their college years, according to a recent national study by the American Association of Universities. At the University of Mississippi, that would mean more than 2,430 students.
As the University continues to change and grow, so do the ways its community handles the issue of sexual assault.
Two University leaders who play key roles in dealing with sexual assault are relatively new on campus. Jeffrey Vitter became chancellor in January, and former Oxford lawyer Honey Ussery assumed the role of the University’s Title IX coordinator in October.
Vitter was acting provost at the University of Kansas in September 2014 when students protested the handling of sexual assault cases on their campus. Bernadette Gray-Little, chancellor at KU, assembled a task force of campus faculty and staff to assess how the university prevented and responded to sexual assaults.
The task force submitted 27 recommendations to Gray-Little and Vitter for review in May 2015. The suggestions covered the university’s policy and processes, prevention practices, support and advocacy for victims and its Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities. By September of that year, the KU leadership had begun implementing 22 of the recommendations.
Some of the recommendations included a central prevention and education center and a memorandum of understanding with key community partners. KU announced two plans in October 2015 in direct response to those suggestions.
“Our whole focus was on trying to do the right thing and move forward,” Vitter said.
Vitter said the problems at KU were not exceptional and the matter needs to be a national priority.
“It’s a really important issue, and it kind of just came to a head nationally. First and foremost, we have to be responsive and treat incidents with utmost care and concern,” Vitter said. “But also, we have to do everything we can in terms of education and prevention, so that those situations never arise.”
The University Police Department received reports of 10 forcible sex offenses between 2012 and 2014, including four instances of rape in 2014. Of the 10 offenses, 8 came from campus residential facilities.
In addition, reports of forcible sex offenses to the Oxford Police Department and Lafayette County Sheriff Department in 2012 and 2013 totaled 10 or fewer each year. In 2014, the two departments received 34 reports.
“Often, when a group or university starts a serious effort in this area, the very first thing if that effort is successful will be a dramatic uptick in the number of reported cases,” Vitter said. “It’s really a reflection that an institution is now able to reach people that have not been reporting in the past.”
Studies show anywhere from 80 to 88 percent of cases of campus sexual assault go unreported, according to Lindsey Bartlett Mosvick, project coordinator at UM Violence Prevention.
Bartlett Mosvick said there are many valid reasons people don’t report, but cultural perceptions of sexual violence are part of the problem.
“That’s where we as community members have work to do to make sure the people in our lives know that there is nothing to be ashamed if this happens to you,” Mosvick said. “If our culture was more accepting of people who experienced this, it would be much easier to report.”
Honey Ussery, UM Title IX coordinator, works with campus administrators, students, faculty and staff to resolve complaints of gender-based discrimination, which include cases of sexual violence.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights enforces Title IX, a statute in the Education Amendments of 1972. The law prohibits gender-based discrimination in any federally funded education program. In 2011, the Office for Civil Rights released a “Dear Colleague” letter, outlining the responsibilities of Title IX recipients in the prevention of sexual harassment.
“Right now, we’re all struggling to figure out what Title IX is,” Ussery said. “It has evolved. It used to just be women’s sports, and now we’re in an era where we’re dealing with sexual assault , and it’s 37-38 words if you read the actual Title IX. So when we’re talking about what it means, it’s changed.”
Ussery said while she works to both educate students on sexual violence and investigate complaints when they occur, the office has potential to do more outreach work, including greater focus on risk prevention and coordination between existing campus education and safety programs.
“You’re going to have alcohol on college campuses, and I think that there’s room to develop some programs that provide alcohol education along with Title IX conversations,” Ussery said. “We have [these conversations] constantly with students about alcohol and drugs. Putting some things about Title IX in is not going to hurt anything, and honestly, a lot of cases come to me that involve alcohol and drugs.”
The U.S. Congress has continued the debate from previous sessions on how to apply Title IX to sexual violence.
The Safe Campus Act, for example, would require law enforcement to have the first look at claims of sexual assault on campus, according to an editorial by former Sen. Trent Lott, a lobbyist for the bill. Universities would be unable to investigate sexual assault cases until they were reported to the police.
Ussery said when it comes to adjudicating, some offenses covered under Title IX, such as stalking and harassment, require more flexible resolutions than those available in criminal proceedings.
“That’s the whole point of Title IX and why it became such an issue,” Ussery said. “The criminal process just wasn’t working.”
The Campus Accountability and Safety Act, originally introduced to the U.S. Senate in 2014, proposes heavier fines for colleges that fail to comply with federal laws and standards.
Ussery said she supports the idea of more clarity and uniform standards, but that any universal staffing requirements, which could come from the bill, might be difficult to meet for smaller schools receiving federal funds.
“That’s something I think universities need to be aware of with the Campus Accountability and Safety Act],” Ussery said. “If you’re not following these, there are some pretty hefty fines to go along with it.”
Bartlett Mosvick, project coordinator of UM Violence Prevention, said she sees the issue from an advocacy perspective.
“The system we have now allows students to advocate for themselves,” Mosvick said. “I think that’s wonderful. I think that the survivors are the ones with the strongest voices and that we should be listening to what their needs are.”
Bartlett Mosvick serves as an advocate for students who experience sexual violence, regardless of whether they want to pursue a complaint. The records of her office are separate from those of the Title IX Coordinator, and students seeking services from Violence Prevention do not need to report their cases to the Title IX Coordinator or law enforcement.
Although her office consists of herself and one graduate assistant, Bartlett Mosvick said she tries to increase the reach of UM Violence Prevention by involving students and peer educators.
“In doing that education, we try to make it accessible for everyone,” Bartlett Mosvick said. “So, every presentation is tailored to the audience. What a presentation looks like for a fraternity is going to look very different than if you’re talking to graduate students, for example.”
In efforts to encourage peer education, Bartlett Mosvick serves as the faculty advisor for Rebels Against Sexual Assault.
“They’ll go out and educate students, for students by students, on that bystander intervention model, but also what to do if someone does experience an act of violence,” Mosvick said.
RASA has been an official student organization since August 2015. The group hosts events and sends trained peer educators to visit campus organizations and inform students about issues of sexual assault.
“We believe that we can reduce the stigma surrounding sexual assault and so-called ‘rape culture’ by teaching students about consent and respecting each others’ bodies,” RASA President Sydney Green said.
Ussery said peer educators like RASA are important to the effectiveness of her office’s preventive work as well.
“I think Title IX could be instrumental in getting the message out there, but honestly, I’m in my 40s, so are they going to listen to me or are they going to listen to one of their own,” Ussery said.
– Drew Jansen