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Editorial: Progress on sexual assault hard to see

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | OCTOBER 09, 2014 5:00 AM

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Not one week after the report of a sexual assault in an off-campus fraternity house, another crime of a sexual nature has been reported, bringing the total for the academic year to eight in the second full month of the semester.

Though most sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows, the most recent crime, which occurred on Oct. 7, was by an unknown male perpetrator and in a brazenly public setting.  The man grabbed a female student outside the University Capitol Center, a building shared by the University of Iowa police. He pushed her against the building and fondled her.

The disturbing nature of the report underlines the problem that still plagues the UI and Iowa City, even after a massive push for action by advocacy groups. It occurred on the same day that UI President Sally Mason announced an addition to her six-point plan to improve the handling of sexual assaults on campus. With eight reported sexual assaults or acts of sexual misconduct and October approximately a quarter done, one can draw a stark contrast to the three sexual assaults reported by November last year and the 12 reports for the entire academic year.

Yet Mason doesn’t believe the number necessarily implies an increase in assaults. “My sense is that survivors feel more comfortable telling us now. That doesn’t make it less challenging or less traumatic,” she said during a media availability on Wednesday. “I dont believe that this indicates it’s happening more often; I think we’re finally learning about it and I think that’s important.”

Is this discrepancy due to increased reporting of sexual assaults, and not more sexual assaults occurring, as Mason has asserted? Or are these numbers a sign of an endemic problem in the campus community? Perhaps, they’re both.

Campus sexual assault is an issue that has made headlines nationwide, especially on how offenders are handled once they’re caught. A former student of Virginia Wesleyan College is suing the institution after a decision to expel the perpetrator of her rape was reversed, allowing the student to withdraw and enroll at other colleges.

Thankfully, the UI has not made this mistake. Two students have been expelled for sexual assaults in the past calendar year, though the sanctioning guidelines for students who commit such crimes range from probation to expulsion.

Beyond making the right call once perpetrators are caught, there remains the issue of stopping them in the first place. No one can claim that the community hasn’t made an effort.

The It’s On Us campaign, recently adopted by the UI, encourages students to see it as their responsibility to “do something, big or small,” to prevent sexual assault. The UI Student Government will introduce initiatives in tandem with the campaign on Friday, with hopes of increasing its visibility.

Then there’s Mason’s six-point plan, which was given additional funding for three prevention and counseling services on campus. The money will create two full time positions at the Women’s Resource and Action Center and another at the Rape Victim Advocacy Program.

But it doesn’t yet seem like these actions are translating into tangible results. To be fair, most of them are just taking effect, and there is something to be said for increased reporting of sexual assaults.  Without context into the overall number of assaults (which is near impossible to acquire), we may never know if there truly has been a rise or not.  As the semester unfolds, we can only hope that these new efforts will have an effect.


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