Sexual Assault and Harassment Loom Large On and Off Campus

By Hannah Raslan, Multimedia Editor in Chief

   A wealthy, progressive community filled with driven students and involved parents is assumed a safe place, a safe haven  to raise kids knowing they’ll grow up with security and opportunity. But when 27 percent of girls at Acalanes report having been sexually assaulted at least once, is the community really as perfect as it seems?

   Many assume that the  recent, overwhelming number of  incidents sexual assaults and sexual harassment only occur on college campuses, or, that when they do happen in high schools, they don’t take place in high performing ones in communities as Lamorinda or schools  such as Acalanes. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case.

   In a survey conducted by Blueprint of females at Acalanes, 73 percent of the women who responded reported that they have been touched in an unwelcome sexual way in their lives, and of these 73 percent, 29 percent said it occurred on campus.

   Whether this was a younger boy slapping a girl’s behind in the hallway with playful intentions, or the much less common forced sexual intercourse, almost three fourths of  school girls at Acalanes say they have had their bodies violated in one way or another on or off campus.  In other words, a very high percentage of girls have indicated that they have been sexually harassed or assaulted.

  Such unwanted sexual conduct falls into two categories, either sexual assault or the lesser offense of sexual harassment which, unlike sexual assault, is defined in every Acalanes student’s handbook. The definition of sexual assault according to the U.S. Department of Justice is  “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape” .

   Additionally, 84 percent of female students have had someone make unwelcome sexual comments, jokes or gestures to or about them, acts that fall within the sexual harassment category.

   The most shocking of the survey’s results were related to sexual assault; 27 percent of the Acalanes females surveyed reported that they had been forced to do something sexual at least once in their lives. Furthermore, 94 percent of the alleged assault and harassment victims said they declined to report their incidents.

   Many were surprised upon hearing Blueprint’s data listed above, especially given that sexual assault and harassment are not generally considered to be major problems at Acalanes.

   When asked for a response to the survey results, Acalanes Union High School District Associate Superintendent Kevin French said, “I’m surprised. I think it’s accurate, but it does seem a little bit high.”

   Acalanes Principal Alison Silvestri echoes French’s feelings.

    “I am a little bit surprised about the on campus – that concerns me greatly,” said Silvestri regarding the 29% that reported being touched in an unwelcome sexual way on campus. “I of course would want to seek out more details about what exactly is going on, where it’s going on, because it’s our job first and foremost, before we educate, to make sure everyone is safe. I see students treating each other very well and so it makes me very concerned that there are students I’m not seeing and this is happening so I definitely need to look into this further.”

   Acalanes counselor Lynn Millar echoed this sentiment, seeming shocked when she heard the data: “It’s surprising that this is this high. It’s not good. It’s very unfortunate, very sad, that people are responding in this way, that this happens to them.”

   Additionally, 45 percent of Acalanes females have felt taken advantage of sexually while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Some men speculate that if more males were aware of the severity of their actions–that their actions are legally regarded as rape –then maybe the number of women taken advantage of while under the influence would decrease.

   College averages match up with the results of the survey conducted at Acalanes. On college campuses nationwide, the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault estimates that at least one in four students will be sexually assaulted during their academic career. Whether it occurs at the year’s wildest party, or just while hanging out with an intimate group of friends, nearly every woman will graduate college with first or second hand sexual assault experience looming overhead.

   One male student anonymously commented at the end of the survey as to why these illegal behaviors are so prevalent: “I think that it is because males are raised to believe they can ‘take what they want’ when it comes to women. The belief that women are simply objects to be had is sadly still very prevalent. Also, guys can be seen as less of a man if they don’t make advances on a girl. I think there is a lot of pressure on guys to be making sexual advances, so that is where this could stem from.”

   The results of Acalanes’ sexual assault survey–which revealed that sexual assault is just about as common on this campus as it is in college–generated the shock of some students and teachers, as in a community as respected, intelligent, and relatively safe as Acalanes, many believe that sexual assault is likewise not prevalent, including males.

   The results also contrast with the Healthy Kid Survey results. which is the “largest statewide survey of resiliency, protective factors, and risk behaviors in the nation,” according to the state website. It is conducted every two years by the district for students in grades nine and eleven.

In it, 93 percent of students in the Acalanes Union High School District said they had never been forced into sexual intercourse. The reasons for the discrepancy can be largely attributed to the fact that the only thing the Healthy Kids Survey asked related to sexual assault was the one question about being forced into intercourse, when assault exists in a variety of manners. Also, the survey’s results combine both male and female responses, which would deflate the number of incidents of sexual assault on females.

   The Healthy Kids Survey used to include a module on sexual relationships that examined the issue of sexual assault much more deeply, but that has not been included in the survey since 2007.

  Many Acalanes girls think the problems of sexual assault and harassment are due to male behavior, not female. This prompts the common argument against girls, claiming that they “invite sexual harassment or assault” due to the way they dress, act, or conduct themselves sexually.

   This is commonly known today as “slut shaming”  or “victim blaming,” and is becoming decreasingly tolerated by men and women nationally. Many believe that placing the huge problem of sexual assault on women’s shoulders by telling them how to act, dress and live is no longer just, and that society needs to look into what it is about males that makes them think it is okay to assault instead. However, some say that not enough is being done to accomplish this.

   “I can’t really remember the last time there was something to raise awareness about sexual harassment that was directed at the demographic that most often perpetrates sexual assault: men,” senior Mollie Anderson said. “Most often awareness is about telling women what to do and what not to wear and not telling boys not to rape. Sexual assault is framed as a women’s issue which is such a misconception. Being abused sexually by men is not a problem for women to solve. They are not the ones in the wrong.”

   Acalanes has several programs in place to discuss and address sensitive issues like sexual assault, including C.A.R.E. Week and the Safe School Ambassadors. There are also clubs devoted to problems with sexual abuse. The AUHSD Diversity Board also plans to raise awareness on campus to these issues during their planned Sexism and Sexual Harassment Awareness Months, December and January.

   “[The sexual education program] should have at some level some instruction about navigating through those kinds of situations,” said Acalanes Union High School District Associate Superintendent Kevin French. “Other than the availability of school counselors, and mental health specialists–but that requires a person to take action, which I think is unrealistic–other than that in terms of a comprehensive, systematic way to address that, other than the Health Ed, I couldn’t think of another place where that might happen.”

   Silvestri elaborated on the few groups on her campus to combat sexual assault and harassment.

   “We have several clubs dedicated to stopping sex trafficking and to promote amnesty,” said Silvestri, “I don’t know if we’ve got it systematically addressed, but I think there are a lot of aspects of the school community that are, if not overtly addressing it in some ways, bringing it to light and talking to students about being good students in healthy relationships.”

   Aside from a discussion on sexual consent by Planned Parenthood during freshman sexual health education, the course rules written in the Acalanes handbook that prohibit sexual assault and harassment, and the accompanying brief overview of the handbook assembly at the beginning of the year, Acalanes currently has no programs in place solely devoted to educating men and women about what sexual assault is, when it is likely to happen, and what the consequences are.

   Acalanes English teacher Erik Honda, who is known on campus as an advocate for increased education and assault prevention, however, believes there is more Acalanes can be doing to fight assault.

   “We’re not doing enough. If one person is sexually harassed that’s one too many people and I’m sure the numbers are higher in both cases,” said Honda. “There are programs that are out there that are vetted and we know work. The yes means yes law that just got passed at the state level encourages colleges to do these bystander intervention trainings which have been shown to work.”

   Of the 73 percent of women that reported they had been touched in an unwelcome sexual way, 35 percent said this has happened to them on campus at least once. The issue  involves a lack of education and awareness of sexual assault, as well as discipline against it on high school campuses.

  , English teacher Natalie Moore said that  knowing how much more needs to be done remains unclear.“The word “enough” is a really difficult word for me to use in general because in education there’s never enough. We never have enough time, enough resources, enough anything so, of course,  the answer would be ‘no’. If we have any percentage [of students reporting assault and harassment ] we aren’t doing enough.”

     This issue with assault and its relationship to drugs and  alcohol stretches over the high school and college domains alike. Many believe that the way society blends inebriation and sexuality discourages women from reporting assaults that occur in this way. First, many feel like because sexual encounters so frequently occur while under the influence of alcohol and drugs, that they should not report being taken advantage of while in this state, fearing it is their fault for getting so inebriated.

    A large contributing factor to this “rape culture” seems to be alcohol; many people are unaware or inconsiderate of the law stating that a person cannot consent to intercourse while under the influence of alcohol.

   “Most of the sexual assault cases take place at parties where alcohol is a factor and I am sure that there are plenty more unreported incidents,” said California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, student and former Acalanes student Brad Wash. “One of my female friends was drugged once and luckily had the mental capacity to call someone and get picked up before anything happened, but mix drugs, alcohol, teenage sex drive and a culture that reinforces the behavior and you get a cocktail of sexual assault.”

 “I think it starts with the drinking culture, that this is the form of recreation, what should we do this weekend? It’s not ‘let’s get on BART and go into the city and see a theatre show’ or something like that, it’s ‘let’s go get a bunch of beers and play beer pong until we fall down,’” Honda said. “And if that’s how you’re having fun, then you’re putting yourself in a state of intoxication that’s dangerous, and it’s dangerous for all sorts of things. If you get in your car or do anything else that’s dangerous, it’s dangerous. Sexuality’s part of life and part of high school life and sexuality and alcohol are a dangerous mix.”

   Given people’s reluctance to reveal their various high risk and illegal behaviors , personal grief and/or shame,  many  sexual assaults go unreported. The National Institute of Justice reports that less than 5% of completed or attempted rapes against college women are reported to law enforcement. College women decline to report sexual assault for a variety of reasons, most tracing back to fear. Women are trained to fear the backlash they’ll face if they report the sexual assault almost more than to fear the assault itself, and this is where the true problem lies.

      “We know that sexual assault is hugely under-reported due to fear of stigma, inability to come to terms with the assault, or lack of education in that arena,” said sophomore at University of California, Santa Barbara and former Acalanes student Akari Roudebush. “So knowing all of that, I’d say it’s way more common than we’re led to believe, and we aren’t even led to believe it’s all that uncommon.”

   “I think the media makes serious situations like this more casual,” an Acalanes female said in the additional comment box for the anonymous sexual assault survey. “So many songs talk about drinking and sex that women tend to justify the means. Also, there’s still so many people out there that victimize the woman for ‘asking for it,’ as if they would have something to be ashamed and put the fault on themselves for “making themselves vulnerable”. It’s difficult for women, as strong as they are, to feel 100% confident that they are not to blame because of society’s mentally about rape and objectifying women.”

   Of the 27 percent of women at Acalanes who say that have ever been forced to do something sexual and the 73 percent that have  been touched in an unwelcome sexual way, 94 percent of them say they did not report the attacks, which again mirrors  national college statistics.

   “I remember being horribly disturbed when I first started at Acalanes there was this known rapist on campus,” said Honda. “This senior boy had been raping since he was a sophomore, had raped multiple girls at parties, and everyone knew about it. Teachers knew about it, administrators knew about it, and when I found out I went in to my administrator and asked, is this true? This guy is a rapist? She said, ‘yeah, we can’t get victims to testify.’”

   In the female survey, students were able to provide an explanation for why they did not choose to report their assault. Responses included, “Because it’s hard to know who to report it to and it happens so often that I don’t know what to do about it,” “by the time I realized it was wrong, it had happened nearly a year ago and I wasn’t sure if it was serious enough to warrant a report,” and because “it doesn’t seem to be a considered a very big deal to people.”

    Others believe that women refrain from reporting sexual assault for fear that they will be blamed for what happened to them.

   “So few rapes are reported because we still live in a society chock-full of victim blaming. If women report a rape not only will the school most likely do next to nothing about it but they will also become pariahs,” said Anderson. “It will be said that she didn’t really get assaulted and only said it for the attention.”

 On the Acalanes girls’ survey, respondents were given the opportunity to choose from a list of common reasons attributed to low reports of assault, or enter their own beliefs. Ninety-seven  percent believe rapes aren’t reported due to the victim’s embarrassed or ashamed feelings, and 90 percent also checked the boxes for fear of not being believed, fear of social exile, fear of retaliation from their attacker, and believing their attacker will not be punished even if they report it.

   “Its the shame that comes along with the self and also the word assault can be a little bit softballing,” said Moore. “Why don’t we just say what happens? Why don’t we say students at Acalanes have been raped? Why do we need to use the word assault? It makes the issue more powerful for the community to hear.”

   There is an issue with underscoring the severity of the crime on college and high school campuses alike. Many believe that if sexual assault was made a bigger deal and a more punishable offense, maybe more sexual assaults would be reported, and at the very least men would fear being punished enough to decrease the number of assaults. Honda lays out a pathway that he hopes other teachers will follow, instead of turning a blind eye.

   “We’re educators. It’s our job to talk about hard things and to get people to deal with hard things,” said Honda. “I just find it really depressing that some of my colleagues and some of my administrators would rather just sweep it under the rug and not deal with it and try to pretend the problem doesn’t exist when that’s not going to make things any better and they know it, and that just seems really wrong to me.”

   The high numbers of assaults have additionally created some discomfort and fear among the not-yet-attacked women on college campuses as well lately.

   “It’s very sad. It does interfere a bit with feeling safe – generally on campus itself I and others feel alright. It’s well lit and fairly populated for most of the day. But I do my best, and I know other women do too, to get classes early in the day before the sun sets,” said Roudebush. “And for people living off campus and in Isla Vista, it’s much more frightening. Many of us have pepper spray and nobody likes to walk alone at night, even in the more lit parts of campus.”

   However, after facing federal scrutiny and criticism from students, Universities in California seem to be trying to combat the issue of sexual assault.

   Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill on September 28, 2014, that implements an affirmative consent policy where “an affirmative, unambiguous and conscious decision” need be made by both parties before engaging in sexual activity, as opposed to the previous law that required a verbal “no” to constitute assault.

   The measure will apply to all colleges and universities accepting state financial aid. Additionally, the bill requires these universities to design “victim-centered” programs to try and prevent assault and help victims.

  UCs and Cal States had adopted these ‘yes means yes’ policies previously this year, if not earlier.

   “UC Berkeley has had an affirmative consent standard in place for years. It’s not new to us,” said Janet Gilmore, a UC Berkeley spokeswoman.

   For the 2014-2015 school year, UC Berkeley has implemented new programs to “strengthen sexual violence and sexual harassment education and awareness among students. Students who do not satisfy the sexual violence and harassment education mandate via BearPact, Haven, or EmpowerU, will have their course enrollment blocked for the following semester.”

   They are also creating new positions on campus and revamping old ones to combat assault. The newly created “Confidential survivor advocate” will assist victims with the reporting process, RAs will have one additional training on sexual assault per year, and new UC staff will be offered a Violence Against Women Act educational program.

   So, universities-UCs especially-are clearly trying to reform the campus “rape culture” in light of recent events.

   “I am proud to support SB 967 to help make California a national leader in preventing sexual assault and violence on college campuses,” said California Congressman Mark DeSaulnier. “By creating standards that students are educated about affirmative consent—“yes means yes”—and requiring colleges and universities to implement comprehensive and collaborative prevention programs we can create a safer environment for students.”

     No matter the efforts taken statewide and nationally, there is still a stigma of sexual assault on college campuses. Moreover, this fear is not only alive in colleges.

“I’m terrified to go to college for fear of sexual assault,” Senior Mollia Anderson said, “Heck, I’m afraid to walk down the street for fear of men. There is a huge risk of sexual assault in every sector of a woman’s life: school, work, home. Men feel entitled to women and it’s a terrifying prospect.”

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