By Maureen McMullen
The weeks following an alleged sexual assault in Grantham have yielded what President Anne Blackhurst described as an “outpouring of emotion” from the MSUM community.
“The overwhelming response was that we do not want a campus where sexual assault happens,” Blackhurst said.
The campus-wide call for action against sexual assault on campus came as a response to an alleged assault by MSUM wrestler Angel Mario Vega, 23, who was charged Sept. 3 with one felony and one misdemeanor after reportedly filming his assault on an 18-year-old woman.
The week of the alleged assault, Blackhurst, along with 25 MSUM students, attended a meeting in the Women’s Center to discuss thoughts, concerns and the steps being taken to prevent future assaults on campus.
Shortly after the meeting, Blackhurst sent an email to students outlining the steps she plans to take against sexual violence on campus, including a sexual assault task force.
“We’re really excited by the president taking leadership on matters pertaining to sexual violence on our campus,” said Kandace Creel Falcón, director of Women’s and Gender studies and the meeting’s organizer. “We’re happy with the ways she has moved the conversation from this singular incident, which we know is actually very pervasive on our campus, to a larger framework to address how sexual violence affects our campus.”
Blackhurst’s planned task force include a team comprised of faculty, staff and students.
“I’ve worked on college campuses enough to know that what goes on in the student culture is another layer of the institution and it’s often hard to get down into that layer if you’re an administrator and really understand it and intervene,” said Blackhurst.
“I think that’s why having student voices on the task force is absolutely essential.”
Blackhurst said that charges for the task force will involve re-evaluating policies and procedures surrounding sexual violence on campus, improving student accessibility to those policies, and addressing issues that are “not so tangible that all add up to culture on our campus.”
“I think culture is a slippery concept, so it might be harder to address,” said Blackhurst. “It will be easier to address policies, procedures, standards, communication and education programs, and hopefully all of that adds up to some changes in culture.”
Seeking further student input, Blackhurst offered office hours last Wednesday, encouraging students to voice their concerns and offer suggestions.
Some of the suggestions included bystander training, improving the clarity and accessibility of MSUM’s sexual assault policy, and establishing educational programs for men that discourage assaultive behavior rather than offer suggestions to women for how to stay safe.
The actions taking place against sexual assault at MSUM occur in the midst of conversation and evaluations of campus sexual violence on a national level.
Days before the alleged assault at MSUM, the NCAA announced increased efforts to fight sexual violence on college campuses, releasing a handbook outlining new standards for how to handle cases of sexual assault.
Vega qualified for the 2013 NCAA Division II national wrestling tournament after studying at Sacramento City College last year. His suspension from the MSUM wrestling team depends on the outcome of legal and university investigations.
He could face up to 16 years in prison and a $30,000 fine. His first court appearance was scheduled for Sept. 12.
Kris Nelson, Dragon wrestling coach, declined to comment on university or legal proceedings but said in an email that he regards the situation as a “very serious matter.”
The U.S. Department of Education has also shifted its focus to the issue of sexual assault on campuses.
They currently list more than 60 campuses nationwide for noncompliance with Title IX, a gender equality law that requires universities to investigate all reports of sexual assaults on campus.
Devon Payne, Vice president of The Campus Feminist Organization at MSUM links the frequency of reports of sexual violence on college campuses to a larger societal issue.
“I think specifically on our campus, the issue of sexual assault is getting more recognition because of the horrendous incident that happened,” said Payne. “It’s unfortunate that that’s what it takes to direct attention to such a pervasive issue.”
Payne and Falcón agree that education plays a key role in the prevention of sexual violence, particularly on college campuses.
Though Falcón emphasized the importance of educating students about sexual issues such as consent, she said the topic of sexual violence can be difficult to address in educational settings.
“[Women’s and gender studies faculty] have the tools, language and theoretical frameworks to understand how it is that sexual violence is so pervasive in our culture,” said Falcón.
“But for faculty members who don’t come from that disciplinary background, it can sometimes be very scary to bring that topic up and it can sometimes be hard for people in the moment to be able to facilitate a conversation that doesn’t end up in victim-blaming, slut-shaming or somehow making it seem like it’s women’s fault.”
Despite the difficulty establishing discussion around sexual violence, Blackhurst emphasized that education, along with strengthened policies, are key to appropriately addressing the issue.
“Our focus should be partly on education and partly on our commitment as a university to not tolerate these things,” said Blackhurst.
“We’re not fulfilling our mission as an educational institution if we’re not teaching students how to behave and treat people with respect and dignity.”