The Fight to Inform

It is nearly pitch black in the basement. The air is stale and the floor is sticky. People pack in tight, elbows folded against sides to keep cups from sloshing over. The music throbs like an irregular heartbeat. Using the backlight on their phones, boys scrutinize the bodies of other party-goers in the darkness.

It’s a familiar scene, played out a thousand times across Temple’s campus and surrounding areas. The address changes, but everything else—the sickly sweet jungle juice, the wafting smell of marijuana, the roaming hands, the lingering eyes, the unspoken expectations—stays the same.

In 2015, 32.9 percent of respondents to the Wellness Resource Center’s Annual Report said they consumed five to six drinks or more the last time they “partied/socialized.” And 30.1 percent of those students said they “pace drinks at 1 or fewer per hour.”

“Some of these behaviors are—not some, most—are influenced by drugs and alcohol,” said Kevin Williams, the director of residential life on the nature of sexual assault.

Every assault, however, is different. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 75 percent of self-identified sexual assault perpetrators reported using alcohol before the incident. The report also includes the addition of alcohol into sexual assaults are “much more likely to include attempted or completed rape than incidents without alcohol.”

For Williams and the assistant director of residential life, Shondrika Merritt, sexual assault too often occurs in tangent with parties, drinking and alcohol in relation to residential life. Williams and Merritt, as well as the rest of the residence life team, often partner up with the Wellness Resource Center and Campus Safety to promote education and sexual well-being among students who live in these facilities.

According to the Climate Survey conducted by the president’s task force, which was released last April, 41.7 percent of respondents indicated they received training on policies and procedures concerning sexual misconduct. The rest of the respondents said they had not received training and or were “unsure.” But all freshmen receive training at orientation and online before arriving. The numbers were nearly the same regarding prevention training.

“How do we help them become aware of themselves, how they interact with others and the responsibility to be part of a larger community?” Williams said. “A lot of that is about self-responsibility, knowing what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable, teaching someone who maybe didn’t have this in high school what are expectations here at Temple.”

We have to be very sensitive about this. There are some times when we might have an event and step in and say, ‘I think we might need to do some education around this, can we see a bulletin board go up?’ Can we see an email go out to the floor or to the building to say, ‘Hey, I know this is impacting you, let’s talk about it.’

Shondrika Merritt

Assistant Director of Residential Life

But aside from these programs, Williams said the majority of prevention education takes place in orientation and at residence halls.

“Our programs build from where orientation leaves them off,” Williams said.

As a survivor, Caroline said she thinks incoming students need more direct information about consent and the risks of binge drinking.

“There needs to be a better education, especially to incoming freshman,” Caroline said. “We’re told that it’s wrong, and then you go to police, and it’s not wrong. … It’s not what I always thought it was.”

Before taking on their roles during the school year, resident assistants undergo training sessions on handling sexual misconduct in August, which prepares them for counseling and communication with survivors.

Instruction on how to properly report an assault is also delivered through the Wellness Resource Center, which educates RAs on the different forms of sexual assault and how to spot potential instances. Winter training is also mandatory for RAs, as are Wednesday staff meetings and bi-weekly, one-on-one sessions to address flaws and collect feedback on how each floor is handling issues.

In recent years, Williams said, RA training for handling assault has been tweaked to be more “intentional,” emphasizing communication with the survivor about what steps will be taken once an assault is reported. This strategy, Williams said, reduces anxiety for the RA and creates a more personal and less intimidating atmosphere for the survivor.

“You’re going to go to who’s familiar,” Williams said of many survivors’ crisis management.  “You see the RA every day, you have had maybe some intimate personal conversations, or you may have not, but at least you know they are there for you when these things come up.”

But even with the education, training and expectations set by orientation and residence life, things can—and do—go wrong. Tara Faik, campaign manager for Take TU, which ran in the 2016 Temple Student Government elections, said cases go unreported because many people don’t recognize assault when it comes from someone they know.

Eight out of 10 survivors of rape were intimate partners with the person who sexually assaulted them, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

“There are huge cultural and systematic ways in which the mistreatment of women is supported,” the Wellness Resource Center’s director, Kim Chestnut said.

“To truly root out some of the things that perpetuate assault means to address issues of sexism, and misogyny, and objectification of women, and all people because it’s not only women who are assaulted and that we have to work on the way in which we culturally socialize our entire population about the way we value other humans, and particularly the way we value women,” she added.

Chestnut said there may be a perpetuation of “rape culture” among the different communities across campus that students may be involved in.

“How do the communities we have on campus perpetuate those things?” Chestnut said. “Like very commonly Greeks and athletics where there is a lot more opportunity to have a patriarchal structure that just has some different historical messaging about the ways that you can do these things.”

As the president of the Temple University Greek Association, Daniel Roper understands the “black eye” pertaining to the association between Greek life and sexual assault, and said it is an issue that cannot be ignored.

“It’s something that we always address and know that there’s a stigma out there with Greek life that we are trying to say, ‘This isn’t us. This isn’t who we are,’” said Roper, who sends information on sexual assault and its misconceptions out to Temple’s 28 fraternities and sororities to combat the issue.

Rather than formal training, which he said would be difficult to accomplish “because every case is different,” Roper favors bringing in guest speakers and partnering with campus organizations to help fraternity and sorority members learn about the topic.

One requirement for students joining a fraternity or sorority is attending a New Member 101 session— a “crash course” on Greek life for new members, Roper said. Sexual assault isn’t the focus, but is brought up during the orientations.

Some of the responsibilities for education fall on individual sororities and fraternities. The groups often send representatives to national conventions, where they can discuss how chapters on other campuses are tackling the issue.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, obviously rape is bad, I’m not one of those people,’” Isabella Jayme, former candidate for Take TU’s vice president of external affairs said. “It’s kind of like—‘I wouldn’t do it, so there’s no problem.’”

This issue, however, is still prevalent on Temple’s campus and nationwide. For Williams, that became clear with the Title IX investigation, which put the university on the map—and not in the most flattering way.

All seven reported incidents of rape from 2014 occurred in residence halls, according to Temple Police.

“People [from OCR] came in,” Williams said. “They talked to us. We were investigated. … A lot changed and a lot changed fast, and I think for the better. It said, ‘Universities, you’ve got to wake up.’  We want to make sure we’re putting students first and providing the best support we can.”

Williams and Merritt have attended national trainings and regional trainings—a new expectation of both their roles.

I think we have to continue to figure out how we educate 40,000 students on multiple campuses, not just on how to make healthy decisions, but what are the resources?

Kevin Williams

Director of Residential Life

But does Temple still have room to improve?

“Absolutely,” Williams said. “I think we have to continue to figure out how we educate 40,000 students on multiple campuses, not just on how to make healthy decisions, but what are the resources?”

“I think Temple’s administration really needs to take serious the resource aspect of sexual assault,” added Davis, vice president of S.A.F.E. “The statistic is real, one in four women in college will experience sexual assault and those stats are way too high to rely on Philadelphia to accommodate us.”

Davis said she decided to help start S.A.F.E. because of the number of people in her life who have been affected by sexual assault.

S.A.F.E. holds its support group every other week and focuses on support and awareness. The organization also collaborates with other groups like WOAR and Childhood Emancipation and participates in events like the Clothesline Project, Take Back the Night and March to End Rape Culture.

S.A.F.E. believes sexual assault is something that the general student body doesn’t discuss because it seems “taboo” and the processes for reporting cases are not clear.

The residence life office tries to make sure students know what happens once they report an assault to their RA. A sexual assault isn’t something a member of residence life can keep to themselves, Merritt said.

After reporting to an RA, professional staff are called in to make sure the student’s current needs are met and to work through what the next steps are, dependent on whether or not the student wants to make a police report about the incident.

Of course, Merritt and Williams hopes it never goes that far. Instead, they hope the education and prevention of sexual assault can occur at the hall level.

There is little point in duplicating big initiatives created by other groups on campus, Merritt said, but there are “scattered programs” throughout the year held by RAs that “hit on the topic” of sexual assault. But even those have to be handled carefully, Merritt added.

“We have to be very sensitive about this,” Merritt said. “There are some times when we might have an event and step in and say, ‘I think we might need to do some education around this, can we see a bulletin board go up?’ Can we see an email go out to the floor or to the building to say, ‘Hey, I know this is impacting you, let’s talk about it.’”

Moving forward, both Williams and Merritt need students’ help.

“How students feel here, that I don’t know yet,” Williams said. “And from the data we do collect, I feel like students feel safe, I feel like they think we’re moving in the right direction, but I feel like we should be doing more for specific groups. And how then are we working with the Asian community, the black community, around these issues? Because it’s not just one paradigm that fits everything. So I’m looking for that.”

Making the improvements they have so far and continuing to move forward, however, is not always easy—despite 10-and-a-half years on the job, Williams still has days where his work takes an emotional toll.

“I would be naïve, to think we’re never taking this home,” he said. “Probably like many of you, I call my mother. I don’t give details and I say, ‘This is what we’re going through, I just need to hear your voice.’ And that helps.”