Back in the twentieth century when I became an undergraduate student (!), part of the orientation week event schedule for freshman included an evening program in which the young women and young men were separated into two groups. My girlfriends and I took seats in the campus’s largest lecture hall and were given a speech that we can all recite the gist of to this day.
Its main idea? Don’t be a zebra.
Now, you may laugh (we certainly did at the time – and continue to a decade or so later), but that was the approach to sexual assault education on campus back in those days. College officials brought in trained speakers for each gender group, separated them, and then (in the case of the women), we were all instructed to travel (like zebras) in a herd to social activities, like fraternity parties and mixers. What we were not to do, was allow a hungry lion (e.g. college male) to separate one of us from the herd because – in the words of the speaker – “zebras will just let the lion take the weakest one to save themselves. Don’t be a zebra, ladies – go to an event in a herd and leave an event in the same herd!”
One has to assume, then, that our male classmates were receiving some form of jungle-themed instruction on how not to become lions on the prowl.
But all of the recent media and White House attention on the ways in which sexual assault is (and is not) addressed by college officials on a variety of campuses nationwide has made it clear that telling girls not to be zebras isn’t necessarily the answer anymore – and might not have been the ideal approach during my college career, considering that I don’t actually remember anyone telling us what we should do if a lion managed to fell one of our zebra herdmates. Who should we talk to? What action would be taken against the lion in question?
Discussions on those subjects are currently ongoing and include proposals for proper training for campus officials when it comes to reports of sexual assault, victims’ bill of rights suggestions, and even the potential for abolishment of fraternities and Greek culture on campuses in an effort to crack down on the groups that are often seen as perpetrators in these situations. (Whether it’s a fraternity/Greek culture issue or a campus culture issue remains hotly debated at present.)
Still, it’s not my job to be a decision-maker in the ways in which campuses police and govern themselves, but instead is my job to make my students and their families aware of the issues as they search for the right college. Due to my specialty with equestrian students, it’s fair to say that 98 percent of my client population is female and this is currently a hot button issue for them and their parents. (Male students are not immune from sexual assault either so it’s an issue that all families must address as part of the college search.)
What do I recommend to clients?
- Awareness. If there are six schools on your college list, do your homework and research what their campus sexual assault policies are (including the process for reporting an attack). Investigate their recent history of assaults on and around campus – both those involving members of their student body and local citizens. Most of this information (save for student names for obvious confidentiality reasons) must be made publicly available by their campus security offices in the form of annual crime reports. (Bear in mind, however, that unreported sexual assaults are also a problem for many campuses.)
- Conversation. Parents and students, you need to have a frank and honest conversation about this topic both during your college search and after you’ve chosen your school. Discuss ways to be smart and safe in social situations, be truthful when you talk about underage drinking and its effects, and talk about how students can take steps to extricate themselves from potentially dangerous situations. Open the dialogue now so that you feel comfortable discussing these topics in the event that your student is affected by sexual assault in any way while enrolled in college. (If the idea of “Don’t be a zebra” works for you as a starting point, use it – but don’t stop there.)
- Perspective. Parents should never assume that their student is one hundred percent prepared for the new culture they’re about to enter – just as students should never assume that “it won’t happen to me.” Everyone will be far safer and better prepared for any eventuality if parents take the time to educate their students about the transition and students believe that it can happen to them – easily.
So let this be a wake up call to parents who haven’t yet thought about this piece of the college puzzle and to students who are about to enter the adult world for the very first time . Campus sexual assaults are a very real issue for twenty-first century college students and even though the ongoing conversations at the government level are promising (and the fact that they’re talking about this at all is a good start), they aren’t a full-fledged solution – educated and aware students are.
Don’t be a zebra, students – and don’t be a lion either. Just be yourselves – and be careful.
(And if you need help in the college search process or help finding those campus security reports, contact me.)