WHAT OTHERS SAY: Preventing sexual assault rests with everyone on campus

Thursday, August 28, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

There's a lot to learn at college. Unfortunately, one of those lessons apparently is how to protect yourself from sexual assault.

As students return for the fall semester at colleges and universities across the country, there's a lot of discussion about the prevalence of sexual assault among students.

The statistics are shocking but perhaps not as shocking as some of the attitudes that have been revealed in campus studies.

Much of the focus right now is falling on how colleges handle reports of sexual harassment and assault. That's important, but not as important as how to prevent those assaults in the first place.

Personal responsibility is key — especially as it relates to alcohol consumption, a common denominator in many assault situations — but a cultural change also is part of the equation.

That includes changing not only the attitudes of would-be assailants but also the willingness of other students — both men and women — to step in to derail potentially threatening situations.

In a confidential Kansas University survey, one in 10 students reported being a victim of sexual harassment, including sexual violence. Of those, only 2 percent reported the incidents to university officials.

The Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access said it had received about 30 reports of sexual violence in the last two years, and most of those involved men raping or sexually assaulting women who were drunk.

The reasons for not reporting are many. Students are afraid they'll get in trouble for being drunk, or they blame themselves for behavior that led up to the incident. They may also fear retaliation or the stigma that may be attached to making a report.

Changing the culture toward sexual harassment and assault also is key. A National Public Radio report earlier this week cited a 2002 survey of about 1,800 men at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

That survey revealed about 120 men, about 6 percent of the total, had raped women they knew, sometimes multiple women. The stories recounted in the study didn't involve any weapons, just a plan to use alcohol to incapacitate an intended target.

The perpetrator sometimes enlisted friends to help implement the plan and often bragged later to friends whose support, or at least silence, reinforced the incident as acceptable or even laudable.

The message here seems to be that, though universities play a role in educating students and discouraging sexual harassment and assault, the real pressure to stop this cycle falls on students themselves.

They need to monitor not only their own behavior but the behavior of those around them. They need to keep an eye on their friends and be willing to step in when a situation is heading in the wrong direction. It doesn't need to be a confrontation; a few words can interrupt a bad scenario.

The beginning of a new university term is filled with many new experiences for students. Those experiences shouldn't include sexual harassment or assault.

We urge students to be careful. Look out for yourself and your friends. Don't be afraid to report incidents, but try hard to keep them from happening in the first place.

Copyright Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World. Distributed by the Associated Press.

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