By: Lynette Martinez
Attention is being called to sexual assaults on college and university campuses by the Obama Administration because “one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college,” said a newly established White House Task Force team in an official report released on April 29.
At Whatcom Community College, of the 10,700 students currently enrolled, roughly 6,000 of those students are women. If this statistic holds true, about 1,200 female students at Whatcom have been a victim of some form of sexual assault.
However, campus crime statistics indicate that, since 2010, there have been no reports of sexual assaults on campus, in non-campus buildings or property, or on public property, according to the 2013-2014 Whatcom Community College Campus Safety Report.
“Our campus safety report shows low campus crime statistics,” said Whatcom’s Vice President of Educational Services Trish Onion. She said that while campus safety has always been a top priority, “after a student was murdered on campus in ‘95 during a domestic violence dispute, safety on campus has been even more of a priority.”
The incident Onion is referencing was the murder of Whatcom student Krystal Way, 25. She was having a domestic dispute with estranged husband Mark Way, 37 on Whatcom’s campus in ‘95, according to the Seattle Times. Police said that Krystal was shot and died at the scene, and Mark was charged with assault and murder. A plaque in memory of Krystal sits under a tree outside Cascade Hall.
“I have never witnessed any fights or assaults but we are a fairly open campus so anyone could bring anything with them that could potentially harm someone else,” said Whatcom student Michael Perez, 22.
On January 22 President Obama established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. This is “a team mandated to strengthen federal enforcement efforts and provide schools with additional tools to combat sexual assault on their campuses,” as was stated in the official report.
Though no sexual assault cases have been reported this year to Whatcom officials, there have been four or five domestic violence cases that have, said Onion. Domestic violence cases are handled with a heightened sensitivity on campus, she said, and each of the students who have reported cases this year have restraining orders against their said party.
The college is given copies of these orders along with pictures of the restrained party. By keeping these records Whatcom officials, counselors, and teachers can be made aware of the situation and “act as watch-dogs for the student,” said Onion.
Many of Whatcom’s policies have been or are in the process of being changed to comply with new policies created by the Task Force, Onion said. She added that the biggest change being made is the college’s policy on handling reports of sexual harassment.
“We are working with our lawyers to change our campus discrimination and harassment policy and procedure,” Onion said, adding that changes are already being made.
Currently, the college is not required to start an investigation until criminal proceedings play out, she said. The new policy requires the college to step in immediately.
“I have never seen inappropriate conduct on campus. It doesn’t happen because too many people are around, someone would step in immediately and stop it,” said Whatcom student Jenifer Huyett, 19.
Another big change made to the policy is that the victim will now be able to know the consequences the perpetrator is faced with, whereas before confidentiality took precedence. If the victim wants to appeal any decision made by the college they can, said Onion.
Along with policy and procedure changes the Task Force indicated in their report that more programs aimed at bringing awareness to faculty, staff, and students surrounding sexual assaults are needed.
Onion said that an online resource, similar to a webinar, will be provided for Whatcom students in the near future to increase awareness of sexual assault and how to prevent it. Other outside resources may be used in the future as well to educate faculty, staff, and students about sexual assault, Onion said.
NotAlone.gov, a website launched by the Task Force, provides information for students, schools, and other community members on how to respond to and prevent sexual assault on college and university campuses.
Whatcom also has two counselors that are able to provide support to students in need of crisis management, Margaret Vlahos, and Malcolm Oliver. Both can be contacted through the Entry and Advising Center.
To reach students as quickly as possible in case of emergencies, Rave Mobile Safety, an emergency text message system, will be coming to Whatcom as well. Alerts will be sent to students via text message when emergencies or other dangers on campus occur, said Onion.
Colleges and universities such as Western Washington University have implemented similar precautionary measures in cases of emergency, such as emergency telephones dispersed around campus that connect students to campus security or 911.
“In four or five years … we will explore other technologies that can help students in cases of emergencies, such as the blue emergency alarms that are on most campuses, but by then who knows what the new technologies will be,” said Onion.
“No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist.” said Vice President Joe Biden in a statement he released on his concerns about sexual assaults on college and university campuses. “We need to give victims the support they need, like a confidential place to go, and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice.”