Don’t be afraid to tell

GVL Archive
Captain DeHaan

GVL Archives

GVL Archive Captain DeHaan

While students at Grand Valley State University are still trying to make sense of the two recanted allegations of an attempted assault and attempted sexual assault on the Allendale Campus’ Little Mac Bridge last month, university officials are urging the rest of the student body not to let those incidents deter victims of a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault from reporting in the future.

“We want to definitely get out the message that this should not deter students from coming forward,” said Marlene Kowalski Braun, director of the Women’s Center at GVSU. “… The Women’s Center has seen an increase in discussion, dialogue, concern that you have, and what that says is that this issue is a very relevant issue on college campuses, and because we know so many people are suffering, we hope that these stories will actually just heighten awareness — that there are places for people to go.”

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, 35 of every 1,000 women on a college campus are victims of sexual assault or rape in a given nine-month academic year.

Kowalski Braun said that in an earlier 2006 survey, reported numbers showed GVSU was in line with national statistics, with about one in five to one in six students reporting a sexual assault on campus.

In the recent myGVSU campus climate survey, 120 to 122 students reported they had been sexually assaulted while at GVSU. Most of the reported victims were undergraduate women who said the assault took place during the first six weeks of their first semester. Rather than report the assault to police, most respondents indicated that they told a friend and felt embarrassed or responsible.

“The overwhelming vast majority of criminal sexual misconduct cases occur between individuals who know each other,” said Capt. Brandon DeHaan, assistant director of the Grand Valley Police Department. “… We know these cases are underreported. These instances that occurred in November should not deter people from reporting these cases. By and far, alcohol or drugs are used as a tool — dare I say a weapon — in committing these crimes. We encourage individuals that have been sexually assaulted to report to police so we can investigate and assist them to become survivors, not just victims.”

Kowalski Braun said the university is battling with a “societal norming” around who is to blame for sexual assault, something that undercuts the amount of reported incidents not only on campus, but in general.

“So, what we want people to know, is that because you were drinking, because you feel like you shouldn’t have gotten yourself in this situation — there are no excuses for violating someone,” she said. “We may talk about people making different choices — so like, in hindsight, maybe I wish I hadn’t drank so much — but that is not a reason for victimization.”

The best determiner for those questioning whether they should report an incident? Kowalski Braun said it is as simple as following your gut, an action underrated by society’s shortfalls in defining what sexual assault is.

“Most students cannot talk about what consent is and is not, so if we’re waiting for people to sort of have this definition, then we’re really having an uphill battle,” she said. “If you feel like something happened that didn’t feel right, we welcome you to come in and talk about it.”

She said the university has a very “connected system,” utilizing the Counseling Center, the Women’s Center, the police department and community resources to create an environment where students can come forward and have a variety of options and choices to report an assault or attempted assault.

In addition, the Women’s Center received its first three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice in October 2010 for $265,129 to create and implement programs and resources to raise awareness and prevent acts of sexual assault and violence on campus.

Theresa Rowland, the grant coordinator for the Violence Against Women grant, said the multi-faceted approach to both prevention and education is the best part about the grant, allowing the Women’s Center to run a whole host of programs for students to utilize both on- and off-campus.

“This grant allows us to continue our work closely connected with the Department of Public Safety, the Counseling Center and community resources like the YWCA and the Center for Women in Transition,” Rowland said. “We’re also training judicial officers, so it’s very comprehensive.”

The core team for the grant, called the Campus Violence Prevention Team, includes membership by those community members from the various on- and off-campus departments, with eight to nine “working groups” under the team, and between 25-30 members in total.

GVSU was one of only 23 schools to receive the U.S. Department of Justice grant in 2010.

“The goal is to not let anything fall through the cracks,” Kowalski Braun said. “What are all of the places that could potentially deter someone after they report — from the officers to the security to the judicial process to what we do in counseling to how we connect students to the community and then how the community connects students back to us.

“Because we recognize that sometimes, students may go right to the nurse examiner program, which makes a lot of sense. But now we know that the nurse examiner programs in both communities would say, ‘Here are places you can go back on GVSU’s campus.’”

Students also work under the grant to raise peer awareness and education, such as the group ReACT, an anti-violence peer theater education group and the recently-created “college men’s group,” which has six to eight faculty and staff members and about 10 student names signed up so far.

“We’ve been doing this for, you know, decades, and it’s mostly been women doing the work,” Kowalski Braun said. “But, in order to really end violence, we have to change culture and in order to do that, you have to look at men and masculinity. How are men socialized, what are men’s roles in this, how do their leadership and involvement change the dialogue? And it is pretty incredible what we’re seeing. We’re really excited.”

Rowland and Kowalski Braun said the VAW grant is a transformational one, and it was designed with that expectation when the Women’s Center first began writing it.

“I think we’re actually seeing the fruits of that labor,” Kowalski Braun said. “It is touching so many aspects of the institution. Change comes so slowly when you can only do one thing at a time, and that’s the benefit of the grant — when you have the dollars to be doing it…

“It’s the synergy that you get — when you’re doing that work one step at a time, you don’t have that kind of synergy.”

[email protected]