Going off to college was one of the most exciting experiences of my life.
I was finally living on my own — with a roommate and 150 other people in my building — and I felt so adult. Despite feeling comfortable with the layout of the campus, once my collegiate career got into full swing, I found myself unconsciously clutching my keys between my fingers like a small shank when I would walk home from the gym at night. I would turn off my music and listen intently if I sensed someone walking behind me when I came home late from the campus newsroom. Although nothing has ever happened to me, I'm right to take these precautions.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center fact sheet, one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. Ninety percent of those assaults go unreported.
Charlotte's largest college campus is among the top in the country in terms of reported sexual assaults. According to UNC Charotte's annual Clery Report, there were 32 reported rapes on campus in 2014, the 10th most on any campus in the country.
Take into consideration that it's widely believed that, at most, only about 20 percent of rapes are actually reported, and you begin to get a picture of the problem UNC Charlotte was facing.
Theresa Rhodes, associate director for training at the UNC Charlotte Counseling Center, believes the high number of reported rapes on campus means the resources put in place by the university has made victims feel safer about coming forward.
"It's good if there are more reported because that means maybe students are safer and they feel like they can access our resources," Rhodes said. "It could also be seen as there's more [rapes]."
While it may seem that Rhodes is just looking for the silver lining on a very dark cloud, she may be right. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) analyzed Clery Act data from 2014 and were disappointed; not in schools like UNC Charlotte that reported relatively high numbers of rapes, but in those that didn't.
The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (the Clery Act) requires colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to disclose campus crime statistics and security information. Every school must annually collect and report this information to the U.S. Department of Education.
AAUW looked at results of data from about 11,000 campuses who filed Clery Reports in 2014. They found that 91 percent of colleges disclosed zero reports of rape during that year.
"Schools that report zero rapes have work to do and require additional scrutiny. When campuses report zero incidents of rape, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking, it simply does not square with research, campus climate surveys, and widespread experiences reported by students," an AAUW report of the group's analysis states. "Following several years of increased attention to campus sexual violence ... schools have been put on notice and given the tools to improve their support systems, policies, and procedures to respond to sexual violence on campus. The 2014 Clery Act data reveals that far too many schools have not risen to the challenge — and perhaps not the letter of the law."
The Violence Against Women Act, reauthorized by Congress in 2013, included amendments to the Clery Act adding reports of domestic violence, dating violence and stalking to the existing rape reports that colleges must disclose annually.
"For the first time, we also have access to data regarding dating violence, domestic violence and stalking incidents on campuses nationwide. But in these categories as well, only about 10 percent of college campuses disclosed a reported incident in 2014," the AAUW report stated. "The 2014 numbers show that campuses that reported one type of sexual violence often disclosed reports of other types. This suggests that some schools have built the necessary systems to welcome reports, support survivors, and disclose accurate statistics — and others have not."
The 2015 reported rape statistics are not available yet, as those numbers are not published until October of the following year, per the Clery Act.
One conversation that takes place in the wake of high-profile university rape cases — like those that have recently occurred at Stanford University, Vanderbilt University and other campuses — is centered on how to prevent campus assaults. Along with crime statistics, schools filing Clery Reports must also disclose what training and prevention efforts they offer or take part in.
As noted in the AAUW report, how campuses react to reports of sexual assault when it does happen is equally important in trying to create a safer atmosphere. Since the aforementioned numbers were released, placing UNC Charlotte among the top ten campuses where sexual assaults occur, the university has changed its approach to sexual assault prevention and education.
Christine Davis, associate vice chancellor for student affairs, said the university is moving past the traditional "no means no" concept of consent, and onto a "yes means yes," affirmative consent rhetoric.
Davis said the switch in strategy is meant to hold a potential aggressor more accountable for their actions. "That they are in the affirmative consent, that there should be consent every step of the way and pushing past this behavior that 'I'm going to push, push, push until you say "no," and then I'll back off,'" Davis said.
UNC Charlotte provides a variety of campus programs, campaigns and resources to its students in order to prevent or address rape and protect the safety of the students. The university starts this education at the beginning of a student's collegiate career during Student Orientation Advising and Registration (SOAR).
Mitchell Weir, a senior at UNC Charlotte and former orientation counselor and SOAR intern, spent two summers working with incoming freshmen classes and their education on consent and rape.
"There is a four-hour lecture on the first day of each SOAR session that covers everything having to do with alcohol, [sexual] consent, theft and safety," Weir said. "That presentation is presented by our on-campus police department which works with the CMPD on safety-related issues."
UNC Charlotte also participated in the NCAA-backed and Obama administration-sponsored video campaign "It's On Us" to spotlight the problem of sexual assault on campuses. UNC Charlotte's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee won the NCAA video contest in 2015.
Other tools like an online alcohol and consent program called "Think About It," educate students about a new idea about consent between adults in all situations, and will be introduced to incoming freshmen and transfer students this summer. The program's key points address healthy and unhealthy relationships, sex in college and sexual violence. According to its website, CampusClarity directs its education toward "potential aggressors," not potential victims.
Education-related prevention doesn't always work, especially in an environment of young adults who are away from home for the first time and feel free to experiment with drugs, alcohol and intimate relationships.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that, among college women, 78 percent of sexual offenses are by non-strangers and 51 percent of student rape and sexual assault happen while the student is either "pursuing leisure activities away from home."
But in a 2010 summary report, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey suggests that sexual assault prevention begins early in a potential aggressor's life.
"Prevention efforts should start early by promoting healthy, respectful relationships in families by fostering healthy parent-child relationships and developing positive family dynamics and emotionally supportive environments," the report said.
The report also iterated the message that it's also important to address and change the norms in our society that allow sexual violence, intimate partner violence and stalking.
But in the six years since the release of this summary, these perpetrating norms haven't been properly addressed, and students have turned to tools like personal stun guns, pepper spray and defense classes to prevent the possibility of their own assault.
Nicole Kyrsiak, a sexual assault detective who leads rape aggression defense classes offered to female students by the UNC Charlotte Police and Public Safety department department, said students need to keep a certain level of awareness at all times. She leads the free classes about two to three times every semester.
"We go over a lot; ground techniques, chokeholds, basic moves," Kyrsiak said. "We go over, at the beginning, common sense techniques ... A lot of people feel like they can just walk outside and go from point A to point B looking down at their phones, but it's not the smartest thing to do. So we just reassure them, 'Hey, you can't really do this.' Not just on a college campus but anywhere you go."
On a recent day summer day, Shaleel Johnson, a junior, was walking alone on the nearly empty campus. She said that during her three years at the university, she hasn't known anyone victimized by sexual assault and doesn't feel unsafe on campus.
"I'll have a friend walk with me maybe at night," she said, adding that she feels fine walking alone during the day.
The university has also recently launched the LiveSafe app on campus, the first college in North Carolina to do so, according to UNC Charlotte administration staff. Two survivors of traumatic events — one of the Virginia Tech shooting and one of sexual assault — designed the app, which gives users a direct line to campus police, to whom they can send anonymous tips, texts and pictures.
According to LiveSafe's public relations manager, Lucas Wiseman, the app has 4,524 downloads on UNC Charlotte's campus as of July 13.
When something does happen on campus, the university has developed a network of resources in order to support survivors coming forward with reports.
One of the most important offices on campus that deals with these reports and cases is the Title IX Office, operated in conjunction with the Office of Civil Rights at UNC Charlotte.
"The role of the Title IX Office is to receive reports of sexual misconduct to coordinate the provision of services to both students," said Susan Burgess, the interim Title IX coordinator at UNC Charlotte.
Instead of going straight to the Title IX Office, students have the option to approach deputy Title IX coordinators on campus, such as the senior associate athletics director or the graduate school's associate dean, who then direct students to Title IX services.
The office then begins to work with the Dean of Students Office to make accommodations and referrals for the complainant, either to the campus police department and/or counseling center.
If a student wishes to move forward with a university investigation, then Title IX investigators will launch a formal investigation into the allegations made in the report. After evidence and statements are collected, a recommendation is made to the Office of Student Conduct whether or not to move forward with a hearing for the student, according to Burgess.
Although reporting a sexual assault can be a traumatizing experience for survivors, organizations like Safe Alliance provide hope and healing through a variety of services and programs for people in Charlotte and throughout Mecklenburg County. The multiple avenues of reporting sexual assault and/or pressing charges can weigh on survivors' shoulders.
Cori Goldstein, director of the Sexual Trauma Resource Center for Safe Alliance, works with survivors who access this off-campus resource and the plethora of emotional support the organization provides.
Goldstein said Safe Alliance not only gives unwavering support to those who come to them with their traumatic experiences, but also works to prevent sexual assault.
"I think especially on college campuses, one of the challenges is that what can be seen as being given extra options can also be seen as overwhelming ..." Goldstein said. "I think that any time that you're having to report something, there are a lot of emotions attached to that and every time you have to tell someone it can be re-traumatizing."
According to Burgess, of the 32 reported rapes at UNC Charlotte in 2014, only four resulted in a hearing. The other 28 cases did not go to a hearing, often because the victim either did not wish to move forward with one or the accused was not affiliated with the university.
For example a 21-year-old man was arrested in May of this year for sexually assaulting a female student in a UNC Charlotte residence hall. The perpetrator was not affiliated with the university, just visiting from New Jersey, so the university could not move forward with a hearing. That does not mean that the student couldn't — or didn't — press charges through Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
Also, if the victim reports a sexual assault to a confidential resource, that person cannot report the incident without the student's consent.
Emotional support for students is also necessary in the wake of sexual assault. University students can access off-campus resources like Safe Alliance 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Additionally, UNC Charlotte provides on-campus emotional resources and groups for students.
"We have a sexual trauma therapy group that meets year-round," Rhodes said. "Students can be in that group for multiple years, as long as they're students. And we've had students in the group for multiple years, so they do form a community."
Small support groups like these might also participate in larger empowering events like Take Back the Night, where survivors can share their stories in an open yet safe public place. Take Back the Night marches began in the 1970s and have since spread to cities and college campuses in order to empower sexual assault survivors and protest violence.
The most recent Take Back the Night event on campus was in April, with another one slated for April 4, 2017, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Other events like Walk a Mile in Her Shoes gather more than 200 male participants to walk a mile-long course in bright red, high heeled shoes. Safe Alliance will host this event to in NoDa on Aug. 27 to help raise awareness about rape and gender violence.
Events like these can also create a sense of community-wide support for survivors, making them more comfortable to speak out against sexual violence or report incidents.
Despite the high number of reported rapes on UNC Charlotte's campus compared to other colleges in the country, Burgess believes it doesn't mean that the campus is less safe than other universities.
"I don't think that we have more of a problem with sexual assault on this campus than any other campus in the United States," Burgess said. "I do think we have worked incredibly hard to create an environment and a climate here where students are given information and that they're heavily encouraged to report to a number of different individuals and offices around here."