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Navigating the red zone: sexual assault spikes in the first months of college

University works on prevention efforts as students receive two reports of assaults

In the nine days since classes have kicked off, the University community has received two emails detailing the reports of two separate sexual assaults. These assaults have taken place during what sexual assault prevention groups and educators refer to as the “red zone,” or the period in the first six to 10 weeks of schools during which most sexual assaults occur on college campuses.

The University and the red zone

Claire Kaplan, director of the University Women’s Center, said this trend is realized at the University and is consistent with what occurs at universities nationwide. However, cause of the pattern remains unclear.

“Common sense would say these are people who are vulnerable because they are away from home for the first time, and there are people who take advantage of that,” Kaplan said.

Benjamin Rexrode, community service and crime prevention coordinator for the University’s police department, agreed with Kaplan’s diagnosis.

University police see the spike in assaults during the red zone, but exact statistics are difficult to pinpoint, Rexrode said.

“Statistics sometimes aren’t going to be an accurate reflection of what’s happening,” he said. “There are a lot more sexual assaults going on than what is reported.”

Being in an unfamiliar environment can also contribute, said Alex Pinkleton, a fourth-year College student and president of One Less.

“The main factor is that it’s a new environment,” Pinkleton said. “It’s not being completely comfortable with your surroundings or knowing everyone when you go out.”

Dismantling the red zone: University prevention efforts

Student groups and University administration have been collaborating on initiatives to address the high incidence of sexual assault in the red zone .

One Less and One in Four recently launched a program called Dorm Norms, which aims to facilitate conversations with first years about how they can be active bystanders and intervene if they see a harmful situation. Dorm Norms is co-sponsored by the Office of the Dean of Students.

“We’re trying to create early this idea that U.Va. is not a place that tolerates sexual assaults,”

said third-year College student Will Henagan, an executive team member on the Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition. “I think we’ve got a lot of momentum behind our efforts right now, especially coming out of a traumatic year.”

The cooperation between students and administration has been beneficial, Pinkleton said.

“Incoming students are getting the message that sexual assault is not being tolerated, and that’s what we really need,” Pinkleton said.

Rexrode said he trains resident advisors to talk to first-year residents about sexual assault and bystander intervention. He also teaches self-defense classes to students and encourages communication between parents and their children.

The Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition is also partnering with bars and restaurants on the Corner and Downtown to prevent sexual violence, Henagan said. The SVPC has donated #HoosGotYourBack t-shirts and stickers to bars in restaurants to spread awareness about the sexual assault prevention.

Pinkleton emphasized the importance of survivor support during the red zone.

“It’s very important that people know how to respond if someone tells them that they’ve been sexually assaulted, like telling a responsible employee,” Pinkleton said.

In conjunction with the new University reporting system, responsible employees are obligated to report any assault they know of to the University. Responsible employees are distinguished from confidential employees, who are not obligated to report incidents to the University.

Pinkleton said the University has improved prevention efforts in the past year.

“We’ve owned up to the fact that it is happening. We know it’s a problem specifically here,” Pinkleton said. “I think that makes people not only more aware, but more willing to do something about it.”

Moving forward

The best way to prevent sexual assault is to look out for friends and have conversations about intervening in dangerous situations, Kaplan said.

“The only way [sexual assault] is going to go away is by taking away the supports of the systems that allow it to exist,” Kaplan said. “Think about how your life would be different if this type of violence didn’t exist.”

There are a few things every student should keep in mind, Kaplan said.

“Don’t assume that [somebody has] your well being in mind,” she said. “Try to be sober enough to where you can actually function. And just because someone is drunk doesn’t mean you can have sex with them.”

If someone shares their assault experience with you, the best thing to do is support and believe them, Henagan said. Provide them with resources to report the assault if they wish, and support their decision to report or not.

There are many resources available for survivors of sexual assault at the University and in Charlottesville. These include the Women’s Center (434-982-2361), the Sexual Assault Resource Agency (800-656-4673) and Counseling and Psychological Services (434-243-5150).

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