University fights sexual assault

By Josie Gereszek
gereszekjo@mnstate.edu

For the second time this semester, an MSUM athlete has reportedly raped a fellow student. This is the second assault on campus in two months.
Football player Zachary Hilliard turned himself in Sept. 23 after reportedly raping his ex-girlfriend. The 18-year-old freshman football player is being charged with fifth degree criminal sexual conduct.
According to court documents, Hilliard and the victim were in his Dahl room when he assaulted her Sept. 17. Court documents state the victim said “no” multiple times, but Hilliard continued to rape her. On Sept. 29, MSUM officials sent an email to students and staff stating that a report of sexual assault had been made on Sept. 23, but campus safety was not at risk. The victim initiated the report to university staff.
Hilliard and the victim apparently met at freshman orientation and dated for a short time, but broke up at least a week before the assault happened. According to investigators, Hilliard sent multiple text messages after the victim left his dorm room stating that he was “sorry.”
An exchange with Public Safety Oct. 10 indicated that Hilliard was no longer on campus, though he has posted bail and been released.
Hilliard continues to be listed on the university’s website as a member of the football team.
Earlier this semester, after the first reported rape on campus perpetrated by Angel Mario Vega, President Anne Blackhurst began commissioning a task force made up of students and faculty to address sexual violence on campus and make recommendations about how to create a campus culture in which sexual violence, including date and acquaintance rape, sexual harrassment, stalking, and other forms of sexual assault, is not tolerated. The faculty and Student Senate-appointed task force is soon to meet for the first time since its official formation.
Blackhurst said the task force, chaired by coordinator of sexual assault services Lynn Peterson and advised by director of women’s and gender studies Kandace Creel Falcón, aims to be a preventative group leading the nation in addressing sexual assault in campus settings.
“Across the country, sexual assault is a huge issue everywhere, but especially on college campuses,” Blackhurst said. “For us, prevention is the main goal.”
Chandler Esslinger, senior women’s and gender studies major and student task force member, said the widespread nature of campus sexual assault is good reason for MSUM to become a national voice against sexual violence.
“I see no reason why MSUM can’t be a national leader in speaking out against sexual assault and protecting their students from unwanted sexual encounters,” Esslinger said.
The example is certainly needed, as campus approaches to stopping sexual assault can be problematic in addressing the real issues. MSUM’s task force aims to encompass not only safety and security measures, but also campus policy enforcement, prevention efforts, educational programming, advocacy and support for survivors, awareness, and intervention.
“Certainly, we’re interested in having a campus that’s well-lit and making sure we have good security, but the real issues have to do with how students interact with one another, what it means to give consent within an intimate relationship, how you know when you’ve given it, how you know when you have it, and also empowering bystanders to intervene when they see something that doesn’t seem right,” Blackhurst said. “It’s more about the campus climate and kind of the norms for behavior.”
Although the task force will acknowledge the role of security on campus, its main objective is to develop an environment where no violence is tolerated and everyone on campus is clear on what that means.
“Putting the onus of preventing sexual assault on women does nothing to combat the pervasive rape culture in our society,” Esslinger said. “By creating a campus standard of affirmative and enthusiastic consent every time, we create an environment where consent is sexy, and above all thoroughly articulated by both parties.”
The task force is comprised of staff, three students, and one community member.
Most of the appointments are by position, as there are key positions on campus coordinators felt needed to be represented. It was a stipulation that at least one student involved be a Women and Gender Studies major.
“I’m really looking forward to working collaboratively with the president and other members of the task force in order to make MSUM a progressive leader in preventing campus sexual assault,” Esslinger said.
Blackhurst said every one of the task force’s members is in their position because of their vital perspective or expertise. Despite the limited number of student members, the task force will still be relying on input from student groups.
“By no means do I think three students will be the extent of student input or student involvement,” Blackhurst said. “My main goal is that the task force be very thorough and comprehensive in its work, through student involvement.”
Blackhurst said student conversation is a driving force of changing the acceptance of sexual violence on college campuses.
“We’ve had a lot of conversation about this semester’s assaults on campus, so I think that students are even more aware of what constitutes as assault,” she said. “If we don’t have that conversation, sometimes students are involved in an assaultive situation and they might not even define it that way.”
She said that although this year’s number of reported sexual assaults is by no means out of the ordinary, it’s frequency, if anything, is evidence that the issue must be addressed.
“It’s not okay that there have been two reported sexual assaults,” she said. “We take it very seriously.”
Blackhurst said the task force will be addressing the university’s current shortcomings when it comes to preventing sexual violence.
“It’s really important to realize that we’re doing a lot of education and prevention work right now,” she said. “It’s not as if we suddenly woke up and said, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re not doing anything.’ That’s not it; I suspect the first thing the task force will do is put together a comprehensive list of everything we’re already doing and then look for the gaps.”
She said one of those gaps is likely the delay in educating incoming first year students as soon as possible about consent and its role in violence prevention.
“I’m trying to leave this in the hands of the task force,” Blackhurst said. “I have some ideas that might be necessary or effective, but this is a really capable group of informed folks and I expect some really interesting and innovative recommendations to come out of the group.”
A large objective, she said, is to create a balance of survivors knowing there are places and resources like the Women’s Center and Sexual Assault Services to receive support on campus, and simultaneously feeling able to bring complaints forward without being re-victimized by the processes in place.
“My goal is that we could be a leader in addressing what is a serious problem nationwide,” Blackhurst said.
The task force’s recommendations will be delivered to the president by Mar. 1, 2015.

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