When Carmen Puentes was drugged and sexually assaulted, she did not report it to police or Syracuse University officials.
“I felt like if I came to someone, especially someone who deals with these kinds of cases, it would be like, ‘You’re just a dumb girl who got too drunk and had sex with a guy and now you feel like he overstepped the boundaries,’” said Puentes, an SU senior.
Puentes is among the estimated 1,034 — or 19 percent — of undegraduate women each year who are sexually assaulted at college, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2012. She and the other victims are the inspiration for new efforts to prevent rape on college campuses.
Sexual assault on colleges campuses got high-profile attention in January when President Barack Obama created a White House task force to protect students from violence during their time at college. The task force is charged with ensuring that schools are following federal guidelines for handling sexual assault on campus.
The problem stems partly from a culture of victim-shaming and partly from silence about the issue, say victims, their advocates and experts. Victims often fear a lack of support from school officials or retaliation from social groups on campus.
At SU, six assaults were reported at SU in 2012, down from 12 in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Cynthia Maxwell Curtin is SU’s Title IX coordinator and the chief officer for equal opportunity, inclusion and resolution services. To fight against sexual assault, she has coordinated with university offices like the counseling center and the Advocacy Center to train faculty and staff. She also invited Vera House, a community organization that works to stop sexual violence, to participate in the sessions.
“The training included everything from legal issues to the experiences of a person who has been through some kind of sexual assault or sexual violence,” Curtin said.
Other local efforts against sexual assault include:
- Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office Abused Persons Unit
This unit is responsible for investigating all sex-related crimes in Onondaga County, including crimes reported by local schools like SU and Le Moyne College. The unit also works to raise public awareness about sexual assault and abuse and provides education to the community. Members of the unit work closely with Vera House and Child Protective Services to build criminal cases against those accused of sexual violence.
- Vera House
For victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in Syracuse, Vera House is a safe haven. In 2012, its advocacy program served 1,571 victims of sexual and domestic violence, according to Vera House’s website. Vera House provides shelter and counseling to community members in need, as well as education and prevention programs aimed at promoting a culture of non-violence.
- Le Moyne College
Le Moyne has strict policies on forcible sexual contact, according to Mark Godleski, Le Moyne’s assistant dean for student development. The school encourages students who have experienced sexual violence to file an incident report, but Le Moyne is not legally obligated to hand the report over to police, according to the school’s student handbook. The handbook also states that the school has the right to involve city or county law enforcement, regardless of the student’s wishes, if campus safety is threatened. In 2012, Le Moyne reported zero instances of sexual assault in residential facilities or on campus, down from four reported incidents in 2011.
Students Advocating Sexual Safety and Empowerment, or SASSE, is a student-run organization at SU that advocates for sexual and reproductive justice. One of the group’s main goals is to end gendered violence and promote safe, healthy relationships, said the group’s president, Erin Carhart, in an email interview. Carhart, a senior, has worked with SASSE since her freshman year. Over the past four years, she said, she’s seen a shift in the way sexual assault is handled at SU. Said Carhart: “I think we are working towards a more comprehensive approach that deals with not just protecting oneself from sexual assault, but asking what is causing this and how do we tackle the root of the issue, rather than put a Band-Aid on it.”
- The Girl Code Movement
Jackie Reilly wants students to become what she calls “empowered bystanders”: people who will have the courage to intervene when they see a dangerous situation unfolding. Reilly, an SU sophomore, is the co-founder of The Girl Code Movement, an anti-sexual assault organization at SU that was created last November. Since its inception, the movement has worked to raise awareness for its cause and collaborated with other organizations, like the Advocacy Center and SU’s Panhellenic Council, to provide education to students. It has brought guest speakers to campus to discuss sexual violence and provided tips for staying safe at parties or bars. Reilly, a victim of sexual assault herself, said the prevalence of drugs and alcohol at college campuses can create dangerous situations, putting women at higher risk of being raped. “I want to get people to realize how widespread of a problem it is,” Reilly said. “And then once people start becoming aware of it, have them start taking action when they see something going on that’s wrong.”
For Carmen Puentes, who was assaulted her junior year, the culture of silence and blaming the victim is what stopped her from coming forward. This is what stops many other victims from telling their stories as well, Puentes said. But, she said, she hopes that will change as awareness increases.
Said Puentes: “The whole time it was like, ‘Did I let this happen? Is it me?’ So many people don’t say anything out of embarrassment.”
(Avery Hartmans is a senior majoring in newspaper and online journalism with a minor in English and textual studies.)