Close to Home: A look at sexual assault at USU

by Jeffrey Dahdah, 

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photos by Nick Carpenter

In late March, Utah State University found itself in the media spotlight on sexual crimes. Hayden Wiechers, a former USU football player, was charged with sexual battery on March 18. A week later, Ryan Wray, a member and former president of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, was booked into jail on sexual abuse charges.

Rewind two months to when Kevin Webb, associate director for the Student Involvement and Leadership Office explained in an interview with The Utah Statesman what he discusses with members of the Greek programs he oversees: “We try to talk about all of these things — alcohol, hazing, sexual assault, anti-violence and things like that. But it’s all under the heading of them being values-based organizations,” he said.

Webb said that because the fraternities and sororities pride themselves on their values as organizations, it is perplexing when these incidents are associated with Greek life. “It’s especially frustrating from that angle, that they are not living the values that they espouse,” he said. Despite the frustrations, the incident with Wray — who was evicted from the house and removed from the fraternity within a week of being arrested — adds another statistic to a national stereotype. “I don’t like to see the negative press, but just because it is happening doesn’t mean that I should bury my head in the sand either, or get mad about it,” Webb said.

The Greek community isn’t alone in this stereotype. The incident with Wiechers also ties to the common association of athletes and sexual assault. In 2014, several student athletes received national attention due to sexual assault cases. Three University of Oregon basketball players were kicked off campus following gang rape accusations. Jameis Winston, a Heisman-winning quarterback, was accused of sexual assault and was later cleared. All told, there were 13 sexual assault investigations involving college football players in 2014 alone.

Like all universities around the nation, the USU community is not immune to acts of sexual violence, on and off campus. The on-campus Clery Report — a mandatory report universities sent to the federal government about crimes on and around campus every year — showed that there were five forceful sexual crimes at USU in 2013. Amanda Gibb, an intern at the Sexual Assault and Anti-Violence Information Office, doesn’t buy it. “It definitely happens more than people come in to our office,” she said.

Nationally, there were almost 5,000 forceful sexual offenses reported on college campuses, as reported by the U.S. Department of Education in 2011. However, the number is estimated to be higher because it is still not a frequently reported crime. According to the National Institute of Justice, one in five women will experience sexual assault while in college.

Still, survivors don’t always know where to turn for help. “A lot of people don’t even know that our office is here or that they have resources, so they wouldn’t know where to go if something

happened,” Gibb said. Jalynn Johnson, another student intern for SAAVI, is frustrated that people don’t know about the help available to them, because she feels passionately about helping survivors. “We feel bad for people that don’t know because it is a really traumatizing thing and they just don’t know how to help themselves,” she said.

As far as USU punishing perpetrators of sexual misconduct — a term used by the university to encompass all sexual crimes — that responsibility falls under the USU Office of Student Services with assistance from the Title IX coordinator. At USU, a perpetrator is invited to come in and tell his or her side of the story, while the Title IX coordinator and the office of student services individuals use that and independent investigation to determine sanctions. Title IX has an investigative role, while student services enforces the punishments. Krystin Deschamps, student conduct coordinator, said that all students “have the right to due process.” According to Deschamps, the intention of this is to give the student “a chance to present his or her side of the story.” However, a student can forgo this option if they wish.

A Title IX coordinator is a university position required by federal law, yet a survey conducted by senator Claire McCaskill shows that more than 10 percent of universities do not have one. USU’s Title IX coordinator is Stacy Sturgeon. The investigation by the university is independent of the legal investigation. Deschamps said, “It is not determining whether a student is ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent,’ it is to determine if a policy was violated or not. Stacy’s investigation is, ‘was the policy violated or not?’”

A bipartisan group of 32 senators is seeking to tighten regulations by enhancing university transparency when dealing with cases like sexual assault. The Campus Accountability and Safety Act, if signed into law, it would establish a uniform system for colleges and universities to deal with sexual crimes on campus. It would also implement a system to punish universities that do not follow investigative and enforcement procedures.

In addition to a legislative push, the White House launched a national campaign earlier this year called “It’s on us.” The campaign, which encourages individuals to take an online pledge against sexual assault, was adopted at USU and universities across the country. National advertisements for it aired, and there was even a pre-recorded speech by President Barack Obama about it at the Grammy awards ceremony.

But Webb said sexual assault cannot be stopped by simply signing a pledge, and if people really want change, “typing your name on a website isn’t going to do that.” Webb stressed that while he liked the campaign as a place to start and the exposure given to sexual crimes in general, that can’t be the whole strategy. “I just hope that it doesn’t stop there. That is my concern is everybody is like ‘Oh, we had a million people sign this pledge, problem solved.’ It’s not going to solve the problem,” Webb said.

Gibb and Johnson are pleased with the increased knowledge of the SAAVI office in the last few semesters. They also proudly report how many people sought SAAVI’s services last semester: 24. A new record. Gibb believes in the power of media attention in encouraging students to report sexual crimes. “I think it makes people more receptive to it. I think the more you hear about these kinds of things, the easier it is to wrap your head around it.”

 

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