Katherine Hazen '18
Smith students marched to raise awareness of sexual assault and violence in a Take Back the Night rally organized by Students Against Sexual Assault (SASA). Eight students marched while others held a vigil in which survivors read pieces or spoke with the crowd’s tacit promise that what was said would remain confidential to create a safe venue to voice their experiences.
Take Back the Night started in the United States in the 1960s after European women met to discuss women’s safety in public spaces. In the organization’s early years, the events ranged from anti-pornography rallies to a march held in honor of a young microbiologist who was killed while walking home alone. Since then, the organization has focused on eradicating sexual and domestic violence.
Sexual assault on college campuses and the institutions’ inadequate punishments or blatant protection of assailants has become a topic of debate in recent years. It’s estimated that 20 to 25 percent of students are assaulted during their college years; nine out of ten of those victims know their offender. From Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry the Weight,” protest to the much-awaited documentary from CNN, “The Hunting Ground,” campus assault has garnered public attention, but it is too soon to tell if the media coverage and recent Title IX investigations have changed much on an institutional level.
Smith and the Five College Consortium are not immune to these issues; in fact, two neighboring institutions –Amherst College and UMass Amherst –were called into investigation last year by the U.S. Department of Education for potential violations of Title IX for insufficiently handling sexual violence and harassment complaints. The former attracted attention from the Huffington Post with its coverage of Amherst alumna Angie Epifano’s unresolved assault case.
Dwight Hamilton, the new chief diversity officer and interim Title IX coordinator at Smith College, said, “Although most of the national media attention on the issue of sexual assault in higher education has focused on coeducational institutions, sexual violence does happen at women’s institutions as well.”
Smith, along with all institutions of higher education, is annually mandated to disclose the number of crimes that occurred during that year; these statistics are published in the Annual Security and Fire Safety Report. The 2014 report showed a general increasing trend, with three off-campus cases in 2013 in comparison to one in 2012 and none in 2011. On campus, there is a similar trend with four on-campus cases reported in 2013 in comparison to three in 2012. When assault is reported, it is often much later than when the incident occurred, which can make it harder for the victim to pursue prosecution.
“One of the actions that will be taken this calendar year is conducting a survey that is intended to identify how many Smith students have suffered incidents of sexual violence and harassment at the college or off campus,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton then offered his long-term goal in which he “seek[s] to raise awareness of the issue of gender-based and sexual violence and to help change the prevailing dialogue that unduly focuses on what individuals can do to avoid being victimized and instead confront the [culture] that enables gender-based and sexual assault.”
As the trailer for the aforementioned CNN documentary says, “We have a long way to go.” Despite the perhaps disappointingly turnout for SASA’s Take Back the Night rally, the message was still clear as the small group of students chanted, “Claim our bodies, claim our right / Take a stand, take back the night.”