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Prevention suspension

Will funding cuts thwart area schools' efforts to stop sexual assault before it starts?
By SARA FAITH ALTERMAN  |  December 12, 2008


Combating sexual assault is especially tough if your workspace is the size of a professional basketball player's shoebox.

For the past year, Claire Harwell has served as the program coordinator for Northeastern University's Campus Center on Violence Against Women, the only full-time staff member designated to address sexual-violence prevention and response on campus. Working from a claustrophobic basement office in the middle of Northeastern's grounds, Harwell (an attorney and former sex-crimes prosecutor) has teamed up with student volunteers, the school's rape-crisis counselor, and staff members of the school's Human Services Program — the umbrella department for the Campus Center — to address institutional response to incidents of sexual assault, and to educate students on the attitudes and predatory behaviors that can lead to sexual assault in the first place.

Scrutinizing and combating violence is something of a family affair for Harwell. Her husband, Dr. David Lisak of UMass-Boston, researches the causes of interpersonal violence, and has extensively studied the motives of so-called undetected rapists, who are oblivious to their own wolfish tendencies.

Harwell's efforts have been successful. "Our new programming has put a stronger emphasis on the bystander component of prevention work," says Lori Gardinier, director of the Human Services Program at Northeastern, "and we're also finding more ways to engage students. This has done a lot for consciousness-raising, to an extent that had not been done before."

Unfortunately, a policy change in government funding has put Northeastern's carefully crafted sexual-assault prevention-and-response programming in financial limbo.

Northeastern is one of three Boston-area recipients of US Department of Justice (DOJ) grants awarded to colleges for the purpose of developing services for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. The two-year grant expires in June 2009, and Northeastern has just learned that its application for funding renewal has been denied.

Harwell and Gardinier had anticipated re-funding without a hitch, so this unexpectedly thwarted cash flow suddenly leaves the school without a solid game plan for funding sexual-violence-prevention programming on campus. In this dreadful economy, other area schools are likewise finding that programs that had made substantive progress against campus assaults are being shelved, scrapped, or retooled, and that general progress in the campaign against campus assaults has gone from one step forward to two steps backward.

Campus targets
Given their close-knit social microcosm, penchant for illicit drinking, and barrage of identity issues, college students are at especially high risk of sexual assault (an umbrella term that includes forcible rape, non-forcible rape, and attempted rape). Boston, as the higher-education hub of the US, is therefore a potential rape hub, as well.

"The Sexual Victimization of College Women," a research report issued by the DOJ in 2000, estimates that 25 percent of college-age females are sexually assaulted over the course of their undergraduate career. Given that the Greater Boston area teems with hundreds of thousands of students, it's an unenviable potential problem matched by few other American cities. To further complicate things, approximately 90 percent of these young women are assaulted by people they know, which decreases the likelihood of their reporting the incident, for fear of being ostracized or of awkward or hostile classroom encounters. Bumping into the dude who you've reported as a rapist while you're in line at the cafeteria waffle maker doesn't make for an ideal weekend brunch.

"Sexual assault is grossly underreported," says Harwell. "The national studies indicate that slightly less than five percent of offenses get reported to police. People are concerned for privacy and don't necessarily want to bear the stigma of being the victim of sexual assault in any kind of public way."

(There are male sexual-assault survivors, too, but they're even more unlikely to report, given the onslaught of gender-related crises that accompany the already staggering amount of trauma a rape survivor experiences, especially if the victim is a straight man who's been raped by another man.)

In short, since relatively few incidents of sexual assault are reported to campus or city authorities, it's difficult to get an accurate barometer of what is actually going on.

For the past few years, though, schools have made progress in identifying a clearer picture of what sexual crimes are occurring on campus, and that is what makes the impending budget cuts so unfortunate.

Because college campuses tend to have higher incidences of what can be defined as "rape," a number of area schools are working to revamp and enhance the sexual-assault resources available to students on campus, developing programming aligned with a public-health model devised by the Center for Disease Control, which examines the "symptoms" of sexual violence, in order to devise a way to prevent it.

"The CDC is looking at changing attitudes and beliefs that allow sexual assault to go on," says Peggy Barrett, the director of Community Awareness and Prevention Services at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC). "They want to prevent it, in the same ways that you can prevent a disease, and are trying to get to the source of the problem, which is a very different way of looking at this."

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