In August we reported on a University of Wyoming student who filed a Title IX complaint with the federal government about the handling of her sexual assault. Since then Education Secretary Betsy Devos initiated an overhaul of the Title IX guidelines, bringing concern about higher education’s handling of sexual violence to national attention. But that conversation is largely focused on enforcement, so Wyoming Public Radio decided to explore UW’s efforts to prevent sexual violence.
At the University of Wyoming, all incoming students are required to take an online course about sexual assault and relationship violence, but that doesn’t mean they actually pay attention.
I asked senior Emily Alexander about her experience with UW’s prevention efforts. “It’s like when you are blind to it and you don’t have to deal with it, it’s so easy not to.”
Alexander admitted very little from those first few weeks of new student orientation activities actually stuck. “I obviously had no idea that was going to happen to me a couple months later,” she said, “but I also had no interest in learning about it. “
On October 30, 2014 — just two months into her first year at UW — Alexander was raped at an off-campus party. She knew the guy. He was a freshman too.
“And now I’m just so fired up about wanting to be that reminder about how it happens,” Alexander said. Because now she can connect what led to her assault with things that sexual violence prevention efforts say to watch out for.
“We played a drinking game.” She said there were about 6 people playing, and described how the guy kept targeting her in the game.
“Everyone went around and you bounced a coin. You could bounce it your cup which means you were safe. Or you could bounce it into someone else’s cup.” Alexander said, “there were four or five times that he bounced it in my cup.”
And Alexander said he’d been insistent that she come to the party. “He had texted my friend before we had even gone over.” He asked: “Are you guys going to bring Emily? Is Emily coming over?” Now she understands, as she described, “he was making sure that I was coming.”
And things were OK, until her friends decided to leave. There was no sober driver, so Alexander stayed at the party. She went into a bedroom to charge her cellphone so she could text a sober friend for a ride.
She said that’s when: “He quickly followed me in, and shut and locked the door. I remember hearing it click.”
What happened to Alexander that night is all too familiar. The majority of assaults on college campuses involve alcohol and are perpetrated by someone who already knows the victim.
Knowing those facts didn’t necessarily help. Alexander then wrestled with feeling like it was her fault. But no else saw the signs, or stepped up to intervene. And yet that’s the idea behind UW’s prevention efforts; that if they know, then they will.
“We would like students to step in,” said Sean Blackburn. “And say ‘hey you two just met and you seem to be getting along but we’re taking one of you home. Exchange numbers. You can text later.’”
Blackburn is Vice President of Student Affairs, and the former Dean of Students, and he said: “If we can help students intervene more often and be aware of those definitions of consent, and be aware of alcohol and help each other out more, I think we can make a big improvement in this area.”
To get a sense of how today’s freshman respond to all this sexual violence training I worked with sociology student Carlos Gonzalez. He gathered reactions from his freshman dorm. One student told him: “From my experience and things I’ve heard from other people they don’t really take it very seriously.” And that’s what he heard over and over again. Another student confessed: “I’m a big advocate for sexual assault awareness and everything, but if it hadn’t prevented me from registering for spring classes I probably would not have done it.” She was referring to Haven — the mandatory online course.
The course was described by another student as being like “drinking from a firehose.” And another student said he thought some people might learn from the training, but for people who are already perpetrators that it wouldn’t change their mind. “They’re not going to be in the bar and say: ‘Wait! What did Haven say?”
And this response doesn’t surprise Megan Selheim. She runs Stop Violence — the campus program focused on prevention and survivor advocacy.
She said, “Especially in Wyoming where there is a lot of value given to personal choice and freedom it can be difficult to mandate a whole bunch of things in terms of student attendance and participation.”
Selheim said as a prevention specialist she knows that if students feel like they have to do something, they don’t take in that information the same way. So the school’s strategy is to make sure students hear the information in a lot of different ways.
Last weekend those efforts took Selheim to the Cowboys game against the Rainbow Warriors. With a team of volunteers, she passed out brown and gold beads and encouraged students to sign the StepUp Pledge. It’s a part of an ongoing effort on campus to train students to be able to identify warning signs and intervene when they see risky behavior. At the game students who vowed to step up had their names entered into a raffle.
Out in the stands students Natasha, Jenny and Zoe shamefully admitted to me that they signed up because there was a chance to win $100 dollars. And Jenny acknowledged, “which is a really bad reason to do that.”
But it is an issue they take seriously, which they attribute to the fact that they’re not from here.
“Back home in England it’s a much bigger deal. People are much more aware of it.”
At home, they explained, there’s less shame around sexual assault and their peers respect boundaries better.
“It took me a long time to trust my male friends here,” Jenny said. “And they are really lovely. It’s just how they’ve been brought up is different here.”
She was referring to the fact that in England all children are taught about safe and healthy relationships starting at age 4. As they get older that curriculum starts to more directly address sex and consent.
Whereas, the U.S. does not have comprehensive sex education. It’s left up to the states, and in Wyoming it’s handled on a district by district basis. And Megan Selheim from Stop Violence said that makes doing prevention education at UW difficult.
“It is really hard to start from scratch when kids are coming in and they are 18 years old,” said Selheim.
“Because there has already been so much time when they have learned through media, internalized from peers and from their own experience what is and is not ok, and how you do and do not engage with people in intimate settings and intimate relationships.”
But Selheim said despite those challenges she sees the culture at UW starting to shift. While the number of reported assaults jumped from 9 in 2014 to 19 in 2016, Selheim said that’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t mean that there’s been an increase in sexual violence, she said, but rather a willingness to call it out which paves the way for more meaningful prevention.
In a future story we’ll revisit Emily Alexander’s story, and hear from other survivors about how UW responded to their reports of sexual misconduct.