Rice continues to expand awareness of sexual-assault prevention

Cristal Cervantes stood before a Sewall Hall classroom filled with O-Week advisers a few days before freshmen arrived on campus and engaged them in a frank discussion about sexual assault.

An energetic, personable community specialist for the Houston Area Women’s Center, Cervantes had no difficulty getting the student advisers to shout out ways to describe a “good hook-up”:

* No regrets.
* You feel good physically and emotionally.
* Safe – no babies, no STDs.
* Both parties consented.
* You can remember it!

She also generated various descriptions for a “bad hook-up”:

* Uncomfortable.
* Consent, but expectations weren’t met.
* No protection.
* Drugs, alcohol.
* Boundaries weren’t set.

“’Hook-up’ means something different to each person,” Cervantes said. “Any nonconsensual sexual behavior is not a ‘hook-up’ — it’s sexual violence, which can take many forms, all of which are unacceptable.”

For more than two hours Cervantes and Rice Student Wellbeing adviser Saralyn Hernandez blended pop culture, humor and a lot of serious talk about the importance of communication when two people hook up for a date or at a party.

Among the key messages:

* Consent is not assumed.
* Drunk sex is risky sex.
* Silence is not consent.
* If someone says, “I don’t usually do this, but …,” don’t assume consent. That may be their way of saying they’re uncomfortable with what you’re trying to do.
* Consent is hot; assault is not.

The presentation included a video titled “Who Are You?” that depicts a female college student getting picked up at a bar and taken back to her room, where she is sexually assaulted under the influence of alcohol. The O-Week advisers were asked to identify people in the video who had an opportunity to intervene in the series of events leading up to the sexual assault, such as the woman’s friends, her roommate, the bartender, bystanders and the taxi driver.

The goal was to educate the O-Week advisers about how to maintain a safe, caring and helpful environment at Rice and give them the skills to do something if they observe someone in a similar situation.

“Your role as adviser is super important,” Hernandez said. “You can be a part of someone’s support system.”

That support system includes an extensive network of resources at Rice for students who become a victim of sexual assault or sexual harassment, including masters and associates at the residential colleges and counselors and physicians at Student Health Services, Rice Counseling Center, Student Wellbeing Office and the Houston Area Women’s Center (HAWC), with whom Rice has a partnership.

The O-Week advisers’ training on preventing sexual assault included bystander intervention techniques and how to respond when a classmate tells them about a sexual assault or an incident of sexual misconduct. The advisers were instructed about the various outcomes the victim might want to pursue and which resource would be most appropriate, such as a criminal investigation by the Rice University Police Department (RUPD) or Houston Police Department, an investigation of violation of the Code of Student Conduct by Student Judicial Programs or an investigation in compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 — federal legislation that prohibits sexual harassment of students in educational programs and activities.

This year’s sexual assault awareness training for O-Week advisers, student leaders and new students was updated from last year’s. Kate Noonan, director of Student Wellbeing, and her colleagues met with students and HAWC to get feedback on training and education materials. Lisa Zollner, director of Student Judicial Programs, met with student leaders to get input on revisions to the university’s policy on sexual assault.

The training is just one component of Rice’s ongoing efforts to prevent sexual assault and sexual misconduct on campus.

In August, Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson and Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Seiichi Matsuda sent letters to update students about these efforts.

“Rice does not tolerate sexual misconduct and asks every member of our community to help prevent or report it,” the deans wrote. “We cannot emphasize enough how important it is that we work together to remove any form of sexual assault or harassment from our community.”

President David Leebron appointed a working group of faculty, staff and undergraduate and graduate students that met several times over the summer to review and make recommendations for the university’s sexual assault policies, procedures and educational programs. Associate Vice Provost Matt Taylor ’92 is chairing this project, known formally as the Working Group on University Responses to Federal Initiatives on Sexual Assault. Informally, it’s called the Not Alone Working Group – a reference to the “Not Alone” report issued in April by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

According to the “Not Alone” report, in colleges across the country, one in five women is sexually assaulted but often does not report the crime. “Many survivors are left feeling isolated, ashamed or to blame,” the federal task force wrote, noting that men can also be victims of sexual assault. President Barack Obama created the task force to make recommendations on how to stop sexual assaults nationwide, but especially on college campuses.

“Rice University has always taken a strong and proactive role in education, prevention and adjudication to eliminate sexual assault and harassment, and we welcome the president’s call to arms on this critical issue,” Hutchinson and Matsuda wrote in their letter to students.

Taylor said the White House Task Force’s executive summary made a few initial recommendations this past spring, and Rice was already doing some of the things that were proposed.

For example, universities were advised to form partnerships with the community, such as a local rape crisis center. Rice partnered with HAWC two years ago to create Project SAFE (Sexual Assault-Free Environment).

The task force also advocated bystander training so that others can intervene if they observe a scenario that could possibly lead to a sexual assault. Project SAFE already incorporates that.

Another recommendation was for improved school disciplinary systems. “We’re way ahead of the curve on that,” Taylor said. “We have moved toward a consolidated investigation of sexual assaults and sexual misconduct. Instead of having a panel review, we have experts do an investigation, make a determination on charging and decide on the outcome.”

The White House Task Force wants universities to conduct a campus climate survey in 2015 to assess the extent of sexual assaults; Taylor said Rice will follow the task force’s guidelines on how to conduct the survey. The Association of American Universities is independently developing a campus climate survey expected to be available by next spring. Rice is a member.

Taylor said the task force has announced that it will send more recommendations on policies and procedures to universities in September or October, and Rice’s Not Alone Working Group will review them and adapt as needed.

“We want to make sure we understand the different education needs of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff,” Taylor said. “This is a dynamic process, and we’re continuing to seek input from students, staff and faculty.”

Taylor and Lovett College senior Meghan Davenport, who is the undergraduate representative on the working group, will meet with the Student Association Sept. 3 to discuss the Not Alone Working Group and solicit questions and input from students. Taylor will meet with the Graduate Student Association Council Sept. 16.

Feedback and suggestions for the Not Alone Working Group can be submitted at notalonewg@owlspace-ccm.rice.edu.

Also as part of the university’s efforts to prevent sexual misconduct, Russell Barnes, Rice’s director of Equal Employment Opportunity Programs and Affirmative Action, emailed the “Preventing Sexual Harassment” online training to the Rice community in August with a request that they complete the course by Sept. 30. He noted that the Department of Education is mandating that all faculty, staff and students at universities receiving federal financial aid or research support complete sexual harassment prevention training on a yearly basis. Hutchinson and Matsuda notified students via email Aug. 25 that they are expected to take the online training.

Leebron introduces the online course with a letter that states, “Rice University is committed to a working and learning environment defined by civility and mutual respect. We strive to maintain a campus climate that does not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment, including sexual harassment.”

Leebron added, “As a university community, we must remain committed to creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for all of our members.”

About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.