by Katie Kenerly
This semester, Sewanee students are beginning to notice something new that is, unfortunately, cropping up in their email inboxes every few days: “timely warnings” from the Sewanee Police about sexual assaults that have been reported on campus. The police are required to release this information by the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security and Campus Crime Statistics Act of 1998. This piece of legislature requires colleges and universities across the United States to disclose information about crimes on and around campus (particularly those pertaining to sexual violence), as well as requiring schools to grant victims of campus sexual assault certain “basic rights,” as stated by the Clery Center website. The issue, of course, lies not in the emails themselves, as they are required by law, but in the language of the messages and in the “key reminders” found at the bottom. In the first email sent out by the police, it was stated that the victim “believes” she was assaulted by someone known to her in a dorm on campus; the word believes implies that the victim does not know whether or not she was, in fact, assaulted. This, paired with the less-than-helpful “tips,” which read along the lines of “do not walk or jog alone at night,” etc., are viewed by many students as blatant victim-blaming. Rather than focusing on how not to rape people, as it were, the focus is instead on how not to get raped, which is both hurtful and disrespectful to the victim, as it implies that he or she played a part in their own sexual assault. As we all (should) know, sexual assault is NEVER the fault of the victim, and for the police to perpetuate this is both dangerous and ill-conceived. These tips, though well-meaning, are ultimately irrelevant, as the majority of sexual assaults that occur on campus are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. Jack Russell (C’17) said it best: “That’s like giving airplane safety tips to someone boarding a boat—it’s not going to help anyone.”
It is important, however, to keep in mind that the Sewanee Police are doing their part to resolve this issue by beginning to change the language of the emails. The messages are now gender neutral (“he/she”), which is important because it no longer implies that women are the only victims of sexual assault. The word “believes” has also been omitted, and a more helpful tip about “looking after your friends” has been added. With a female Chief of Police, it is hard to believe that her intent is to blame victims for their assault; the language of her emails, however, leaves much to be desired. The fact of the matter is that this is a relatively new issue for the police to deal with so publicly, and as they can only do so much, it is our responsibility, as students, to take action. The student-led activism group Safe and Sound, founded by Madison Cornwell (C’16), aims to send the police additional tips that include suggestions such as “when consuming alcohol, know your tendencies and limits,” as well as remind students of the definition of consent, as stated by the University and agreed upon by every student when he or she signs the Honor Code. Sexual assault is absolutely preventable, but it is the job of the students, not the police or administration, to assure that it becomes so. Learn the definition of consent and practice it actively to prevent future “Timely Warnings” from being sent out.