Sexual assaults on college campuses continue to make headlines and universities need to make a difference

As victims speak out, it's time to do more than listen

It’s an all-too familiar story by now: When senior art student Emma Sulkowicz reported to authorities at Columbia University she’d been raped in her dorm by a male student, her case was dismissed and her rapist remained on campus.

But Sulkowicz’s story joins the legions of cases gaining national attention as she, after finding out that two other students also reported being raped by her attacker, has refused to stay silent. Sulkowicz is carrying a dorm-room mattress with her on campus in protest and has motivated other students to join her.

Sulkowicz’s courage and resilience are worthy of praise, but the necessity of her actions is emblematic of a far larger problem. Campus administrators and legal authorities are failing students, often willfully, leaving it to the victims themselves to seek justice.

The authorities refuse to do their jobs, but fortunately they’ve been thrown into a harsh spotlight, as colleges across the country have their incompetence splashed across headlines.

As news outlets publish campus-by-campus report cards and publications like The New York Times generate detailed profiles of schools that fail to properly acknowledge and take legal action against sexual assaults on campus, it’s clear that the epidemic of sexual assaults on colleges campuses is, at last, receiving the attention it rightfully deserves.

Sexual assaults on campus are forcing reluctant universities to take action or face public scrutiny and stricter laws are being passed. To see this serious issue brought into the spotlight is encouraging, but also deeply depressing.

The need for a “yes means yes” law, which passed in California and defines consent as a required “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement” is saddening and reflective of a widespread and insidious cultural trend in which one in five women will be sexually assaulted at college.

Despite that number – which should be enough to motivate universities to act, rather than the fear of public critique – a national survey released in July found that 41 percent of colleges have not investigated a single claim of rape on their campuses in the past five years.

UB is not immune to this disturbing trend. Though data from 2013 is not yet available online, the number of forcible sexual assaults on campus – that’s not including nearby areas – rose to 12 in 2012 – a dramatic increase from the three cases in 2011 and two in 2010, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education.

As campuses face the dreaded “red zone,” the period from the beginning of classes to Thanksgiving break when students are at the highest risk of sexual assault. It’s time for administrators to realize that they can no longer get away with their questionable policies and barbarous treatment of victims brave enough to file charges.

There’s so much wrong with that last sentence, and accordingly, with the culture surrounding sexual assault: There shouldn’t be a “red zone,” universities should be motivated by a desire to protects their students rather than by fear of negative press and victims should be able to accuse their attackers without worrying about reprisal. But we, as a nation, are not there yet. We’re still at the point where “one in five” no longer carries shock value and public awareness and media attention are more effective than legal proceedings.

The SUNY system recently made headlines for its support of a bipartisan, federal effort to increase university’s resources for sexual assault victims and establish penalties for non-compliance. And though this is certainly a positive step UB’s part and its fellow SUNY universities, demonstrating an awareness of the problem and a willingness to take action, until the number of cases at UB falls from 12 to zero and until Emma Sulkowicz can put down her mattress, there is little to celebrate.