Student Safety: Addressing College Drinking and Sexual Assault on Campus

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

students on campusFirst-year college students arrive on campus expecting newfound freedom, community engagement, academic enrichment—and yes, parties. Safety may not be their first concern—it often lags behind social life and decent shower shoes—yet safety should be on their minds, and it also should be the number one priority of any college administration.

You’ve undoubtedly heard about controversy surrounding a Rolling Stone article detailing an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party. The story called attention to a widespread problem in this country: sexual assault on college campuses. Though the UVA story was eventually discredited, countless other stories of sexual assault occurring on campuses are all too real. Schools like Dartmouth, Stanford, and  Vanderbilt are just a few that have been in the headlines recently for issues related to rape and sexual assault among students—and they are far from exceptions. According to some studies, nearly 20 percent of women report experiencing a completed or attempted sexual assault during their college years.

The role of alcohol, specifically binge drinking, has risen to the center of this debate. Alcohol has been linked as a contributor to sexual assault, and, in response, many administrations are rightly stepping up to address student binge drinking. Certain measures can stem risky drinking on campus—which, let’s all remember, is illegal for any students under the age of 21 in the first place. It should not be made “easy” for students aged 18, 19 and 20 to access and consume alcohol, and it is therefore appropriate for colleges and universities to establish social host ordinances to hold the fraternities, sororities, or other party hosts responsible if they distribute alcohol to underage students.

I applaud any efforts to develop solutions, though some have been better than others. For example, UVA recently received significant backlash after sorority sisters were ordered by their national chapters to avoid all fraternity events during “Boys’ Bid Night,” when fraternities welcome new members and invite sorority sisters to parties. While I support the intention of the edict, it sends a message that fraternities are incapable of ensuring a safe and fun event, that women are unable to handle their own safety, and that the college community is unable to establish rules and enforce them appropriately. Prioritizing student safety is of critical importance, but it requires working with students of both sexes productively.

A better option is to create safer environments for students on campus—rather than simply excluding female students from social activities—and work to change student community life from the bottom up. For example, UVA college officials, with student input, created an agreement that was signed by fraternity leaders last month with the goal of making parties safer. Some of their rules include ensuring the presence of at least one sober brother during events, banning kegs and pre-made mixes of liquor or punch, and making bottled water available. In addition, Dartmouth took a step further last week and banned all hard liquor on campus in an effort to promote student safety.

Of course, the most important component of any solution is to not only address drinking on college campuses, but to take a long, hard look at their overall environment. A significant cultural shift is required to adequately address a problem as complex as sexual assault. Schools that focus on legal and moral values, codes of conduct, strict rules, ongoing education for both male and female students, and consistent enforcement have the safety of their students as their primary priority, and students know it.  Safety should permeate all aspects of the college community – including teaching students what is legally right and holding each student responsible for his or her behavior.

That is why I like Dartmouth’s intention to draft very clear codes of conduct for individual students as well as fraternities, sororities, and other groups. The goal is to hold everyone to much higher standards, as well as a higher level of accountability. Colleges will need to be strict in holding Greek organizations truly accountable, and must not allow fraternities and sororities to exist on campus if they fail to abide.

Dartmouth is also working to foster stronger ties among students by creating clusters of dormitories where students are assigned as freshmen and where they will remain throughout their college years.  These residential communities will organize regular social events and involve faculty advisors.  Perhaps this kind of investment will shift students from focusing on the Greek system (currently more than half of Dartmouth students join fraternities or sororities) because they will already feel like they are part of a supportive, safe, and fun community.

Administrators, along with the student body, can further tackle problems like sexual assault and excessive drinking on campus through education. Mechanisms of safety need to be embedded in the college environment through sober activities, peer support, and increased faculty involvement. Colleges must provide all students with a foundation of values on which they can rely, along with enforced rules to foster a secure community for all members.

Elizabeth Urquhart

Senior Director, Phoenix House San Diego

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