Safer Spaces

Diverse coalition announces first-of-its-kind effort to end sexual- and gender-based violence on college campuses

click to enlarge Kristin Shrimplin, executive director of Women Helping Women, says sexual- and gender-based violence is very much a public health epidemic.
Kristin Shrimplin, executive director of Women Helping Women, says sexual- and gender-based violence is very much a public health epidemic.

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hirty-one years ago, Susan Bruggeman was just two months into her freshman year at the University of Cincinnati when she was raped at a Halloween party by a date her friend set her up with.

The incident quickly became public after she reported it to the school, beginning a series of events that left her feeling humiliated. She was questioned publicly in front of her dorm by campus officials and Cincinnati Police the night she alerted her resident assistant about what happened. Then she was given given special accommodations, like her own bathroom, which made her entire dorm aware of the trauma she had experienced.

“I was treated like a leper, like it was my fault,” Bruggeman says. “The shame I felt was overwhelming. It’s no wonder not many people report their attacks. These traumatic experiences profoundly affected and changed the course of my life.”

Being on campus was a constant reminder of the attack, Bruggeman says, and her grades started to fall. She forewent therapy, finding the experience too difficult to talk about. She dropped out of her civil engineering program two years after the assault and struggled with depression for decades before finally seeking help.

Bruggeman’s story — as harrowing as it sounds — is not uncommon. A 2015 National Sexual Violence Resource Center Report found that 1 in 5 college women and 1 in 16 college men will experience some form of attempted or completed sexual assault during their time on campus, and most of the time, these assaults go unreported. One report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that students report their attacks to law enforcement only 20 percent of the time.

These realities are part of the reason Bruggeman was among a crowd of university officials, sexual assault prevention advocates and Cincinnati Police Department officials who gathered at a Sept. 15 press conference at City Hall for the announcement of a new task force dedicated to eliminating gender-based violence on campus. Spearheaded by City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, the Cincinnati Task Force to Reduce Campus Gender-Based Violence hopes to allow promising students like Bruggeman to be guaranteed a safe learning environment on campuses.

“This group is going to help create a culture change within and beyond Cincinnati and greater Cincinnati’s college campuses,” Sittenfeld said.

As the chair of the Education and Entrepreneurship Committee, Sittenfeld views campus gender-based violence as something that can potentially affect a student’s right to education, he says.

The task force’s intention is to connect a variety of community partners — including local nonprofits, city officials, Cincinnati area universities, the Cincinnati Police Department, Cincinnati Public Schools, university students and sexual assault survivors — to launch an eight-month initiative focused on students ages 16 to 24, the most vulnerable age range, according to Sittenfeld.

Three sub-committees will be devoted to awareness and prevention; survivor access and support; and policies and protocols. They’ll work specifically to reform and improve local universities’ policies on sexual assault, to help provide assistance to survivors and to launch a city-wide prevention and awareness campaign. Eventually, a web portal will offer campus and community resources to survivors.

According to Sittenfeld, this task force is the first of its kind in the country.

“Our primary role is one that too often goes underutilized in government: the simple act of convening, of bringing people together to accomplish big things,” he said at the press conference. “And that’s what’s reflected here today. A committed group of community stakeholders, who, through the collaborative task of this framework, are poised to move the needle on a major issue.”

Kristin Shrimplin and Kate Lawson will co-chair the task force. Shrimplin is the executive director of Women Helping Women, a nonprofit that provides support to victims of gender-based crimes; Lawson is the Title IX coordinator at Xavier University.         

“This is very much a public health epidemic. So it’s not just one particular campus that there’s an issue,” Shrimplin says. “By the nature of the definition of ‘public health epidemic,’ when you have anywhere from 20 percent to 25 percent of college women experiencing this, it really necessitates response.”    

Shrimplin says one of the results the task force might expect to see in the coming months is a spike in the number of sexual assault cases reported — not because the number of attacks will increase, but because more survivors might feel comfortable
coming forward.

A major part of the task force will be a focus on awareness and prevention strategy. Cincinnati’s Task Force to Reduce Campus

Gender-Based Violence will also launch a local chapter of the White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign, this one called “It’s On Us – Cincinnati.” 

The Obama administration announced the “It’s On Us” campaign last year. The preventative initiative asks students to take a pledge to participate in ending sexual assault by means such as talking to friends about the issue and by speaking up and acting if they see a situation that looks like, or could become, a sexual assault.

“On the national front, on the local front, we are not seeing a decrease happening in the amount of victimization, and that’s really what we want to lean into, and that’s going to take awhile,” Shrimplin says. “Prevention is a long-term strategy.”

The national campaign also sent out guidance to every federally funded school about its obligation to handle and prevent sexual assault, and it worked with universities to help reform their policies, much like Cincinnati’s task force will be doing with universities within the city — mainly Xavier University, the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati State University and Cincinnati Christian University.

Two of these schools have recently stirred up controversy over the way they have handled sexual assaults on campus and services available to survivors.

In 2012, Xavier University was one of more than 50 universities that went under federal investigation for mishandling a sexual assault claim.

Just before the start of this school year, the University of Cincinnati upset local activists when it abruptly cancelled the training for student peer advocates in the RECLAIM Sexual Assault Survivor Advocate Program. The move caused many to fear that the nationally recognized program had been cancelled, although the university maintains it has plans to go forward with the current program.

RECLAIM peer advocate Lauren Stoll spoke at the Sept. 15 press conference about the importance of the university’s role in preventing and supporting survivors of sexual assault.

“The University of Cincinnati has a responsibility to ensure that survivors of gender-based violence have access to a full range of comprehensive options for support services … and to dismantle and to say no to the culture that creates survivors and perpetuates gender-based violence on campuses,” Stoll said.

It’s been several years since Bruggeman finally sought help for her rape on UC’s campus that occurred more than three decades ago. She now volunteers to help other survivors at Women Helping Women and plans to assist Shrimplin with the task force.

The assault had an impact on a significant portion of her life, especially her education, which has motivated her to draw attention to the issue.

“What could I have done with those 30 years that I lost?” Bruggeman says. “I am just one person. Now think of the combined lost potential of every survivor. That’s the enormity of this issue.” ©

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