Parents send their children to colleges and universities for a safe and contained educational experience, but college campuses are rapidly becoming hunting grounds for sexual assaults. SUNY campuses especially have faced rising sexual assault reports within the past five years, according to New York State’s campus crime website. Incidents such as the recent ‘forcible touching’ assault, where an unknown male entered an all women’s bathroom in the SBS building and attempted to ‘forcibly touch’ a graduate student, are raising fear and a need for increased actions. With the numbers rising against them, many Universities, including Stony Brook, are making an intense effort to promote awareness and prevention of sexual assault.
It’s hard to pinpoint one reason behind the climb in sexual assault numbers. Center for Prevention and Outreach intern Michelle Milner says the blame is on a culmination of things.
“Rape culture is a major issue, just in the world. I believe that rape is too normalized through rape jokes, etc. I think that if we don’t normalize rape so much and we intervene quicker when it could be happening than there will be less occurrences of it,” Milner said.
Suffolk County Assistant Police Chief Eric Olsen explained that sexual assault is never an easy case to handle “because it’s such an intimate crime there’s a lot of emotions involved.” Sexual assault cases on college campuses are especially difficult to handle because they doesn’t always fit into the traditional ‘rape scenarios’ many people were told to be wary of. According to the National Institute of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, nine out of every ten victims of sexual assault know their attacker; students are more at risk from their own classmates than they are from a stranger in the night.
To combat the growing fear and threats of sexual assault, Stony Brook has implemented an abundance of programs and advisors for students to get the information they need to stay safe. One of Stony Brook’s newest additions to their sexual assault prevention and advisory team is complainant navigator, Samantha Winter.
“As the Complainant Navigator, I am a confidential resource on campus for anyone (student, staff or faculty) who has experienced interpersonal and/or sexual violence. I provide advocacy and support to survivors and discuss resources and reporting options available both on and off campus. If someone decides to report the incident, I will accompany them through that process (whether institutional or criminal),” Winter explained.
Winter is the middle man that the University was missing in previous years; a confidential guide for victims who aren’t quite ready or may not know what to do after being assaulted. Winter also acts as an advocate for prevention. Within the Center for Prevention and Outreach (CPO), there are programs in place to educate students about sexual assault. CPO intern Michelle Milner said she’s seen the prevention programs in the department receive widespread support. Milner said that a big part of the sexual assault problem is ignorance on the part of bystanders.
“Perhaps not knowing what to do in a situation when someone sees it happening, that’s why teaching bystander intervention is so important, because if you can identify the problem, you can act against the problem.”
Fighting against the problem and promoting prevention is an uphill battle, but the real strife comes when assaults are carried out on campus and the victim must decide what to do next. Stony Brook’s system is set up so that any victim has options to choose from if they choose to report their assault, although they are not obligated to. “It’s about the victim’s right to have their case treated the way they want it to be treated,” Olsen said, explaining what the process of reporting an assault is like for victims. Victims can pursue criminal charges against their attacker and follow police procedure, but not all cases end with the victims’ perpetrator behind bars, as sexual assault cases are increasingly difficult to prove. Victims also have the option to deal with the assault internally through the school. Stony Brook has something called the Office of Community Standards, which is an office that “receives, investigates, and resolves alleged violations of the University Student Conduct Code” according to their website. The Office of Community Standards is an alternative to legal action and allows victims to still prosecute their attacker and demand punishment without the aspect of law enforcement.
While this is a good alternative for victims who don’t want to get involved with the police, skeptics say that there are real drawbacks to pursuing an internal case through the school. Since the Office of Community Standards works with internal investigations of cases like sexual assault, the board members who oversee the disciplinary hearings are not law enforcement officials or lawyers, but administrative officials. Stony Brook’s Title IX department and the Office of Community Standards have been under scrutiny since the wake of the Sarah Tubbs rape case of 2014.
Sarah Tubbs, a former student at Stony Brook, filed disciplinary charges within the school against her attacker after she claimed the police department didn’t offer her the help she needed. Tubbs has said in past interviews that school officials forced her to personally prosecute her attacker, which is a violation of Title IX. In light of the Sarah Tubbs case and her lawsuit against the school, Stony Brook is one of 11 colleges and Universities in New York with pending Title IX investigations.
With controversy and skepticism circling Stony Brook’s Title IX department, the University police department maintains that the school and the police department work under a ‘zero tolerance’ rule when it comes to sexual assaults. The SUNY system also maintains that it is doing everything in its power to promote awareness and prevention.