By Michelle Spradling, Guest Blogger and Project Director of the Sexual Assault Interagency Council in Denver
Originally posted at and re-blogged with permission from the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CCASA)
More than any season, fall brings nostalgic feelings of excitement and anticipation. I am certain this is a direct result of 17 years of “back to school” shopping trips, class schedule-comparing, and no. 2 pencil sharpening. Fall is the season of change, with leaves turning into delicate crisps of mahogany and new classes, friends, and the promise of a whole year’s worth of experiences waiting to be realized.
Although exactly ten years have passed, I still remember starting my freshman year of college, which was prefaced by a summer of accumulating boxes, squirrelling school supplies and reading college survival guides. I will never forget saying goodbye to my best friend and how we said we would IM and call each other, “like, all the time.” And I will never forget how arriving 10 hours and two states away from the only life I ever knew was nothing short of awesome.
Recognizing Campus Safety Month in September is obviously deliberate: get the message out about the dangers of alcohol, campus shootings, theft, fire safety, and sexual assault the minute students disembark on the quad. More importantly, the beginning of school is memorable and serves as a golden opportunity to imprint the vital messages students carry with them throughout their college careers and beyond.
Although subtle, I wouldn’t realize the weight of the messages I learned during the first month of college until January of the following year. Exactly one week in to the second semester, I was raped. In the interest of time: he was a trusted acquaintance and fellow Greek member. I was at a party where I had been drinking and my friends had gone home, accidentally taking my cell phone and dorm key with them. In the aftermath of the assault, I felt painstakingly alone, ashamed and responsible. As I considered my next move, I tried to recall anything about what I was told to do in the prior months, but could only recall the following references to sexual assault from my weeklong orientation class:
1. Our orientation class discussion about sexual assault was brief. While sitting in a shady spot under a tree near the student center, we flipped our student handbooks to the crime report statistics which showed one sexual assault was reported during the previous school year. Our orientation leader informed us that of course this is not a real number since most victims do not report.
The Message: You’re probably not supposed to report a sexual assault—unless you want to really stand out.
2. Campus Police presented about self-defense classes and the After Dark police escort service, which would shepherd any student to their car after a late night class or past the big scary oak tree by the Science building.
The Message: Women shouldn’t walk alone on campus at night.*
*Two months later, as I was leaving to walk to my sorority house for a pledging activity, I ran in to a nice guy that frequented the floor of my dorm. He offered to walk with me, as it was after dark and “there are a lot of creeps out there”. I didn’t mind the company, so I accepted his offer. The next time I saw him was through the glass of the study room on my floor, chatting with the cops. It turns out he had been stalking a girl down the hall. I realized I was better off walking alone at night.
3. The Resident Advisor came in to my dorm room and tossed a “Red Zone” packet on my bed and explained that the start of the school year until Thanksgiving is the most dangerous time for women on campus. Inside the packet were statistics, phone numbers to the rape crisis center, and a keychain rape whistle.
The Message: Mark a commemorative date on the calendar for December 1 to celebrate not being raped. Also keys are now a weapon against violence and shouldn’t be left unattended.
4. Many times we were warned by both the orientation leader and Resident Advisor that the campus is dry. Don’t drink, don’t stash alcohol in your closet, and don’t even try returning to your dorm drunk. You will get caught and disciplined accordingly.
The Message: The campus is dry. Don’t get caught drinking. It’s safer to go off campus to drink and use the stairwell instead of the elevators when returning to your room. And if you find yourself without your dorm key at 4AM and you’ve been drinking, your only option is to use the emergency call box to dispatch an officer to open the door for you. Unless you want to risk being arrested for underage drinking and kicked out of school, it’s probably “safer” to stay off-campus at a fraternity house, with a guy who will ultimately rape you.
Looking back, I realized that what I didn’t learn in those formative weeks was a message about how survivors of sexual assault are believed, encouraged to seek help and supported by the institution. I hadn’t learned what constituted rape, but had instead received mixed messages about perpetrators being known to the victim while at the same time being handed a rape whistle. I, like most survivors, struggled internally with defining my assault: It didn’t seem like rape because I hadn’t heard of anyone who had experienced anything similar. While I did ultimately find a culture of support from university administrators, counselors and police, I disclosed with a delay, slowly and reluctantly, and only after I had been reassured by trusted friends (and later a rape crisis advocate), that I had been sexually assaulted, it wasn’t my fault, and I would not be in trouble.
This September, alongside fire extinguisher demonstrations and sexual assault prevention education (bystander only, please), ensure that your definitions of “sexual assault awareness” and “campus safety” include consent descriptions and a component of emotional safety for sexual assault survivors. Because not all sexual assaults can be prevented, send the message early that your school is a place where students can feel safe talking about, intervening in, and disclosing sexual violence—and subsequently where perpetrators do not feel welcome.
Michelle Spradling is the Project Director of the Sexual Assault Interagency Council in Denver. She also speaks publicly about her experience as a survivor and is co-chair of the Crime Victim Advisory Council, a group of crime victims who work educate the community on the personal and societal impact of violent crime.