The article below contains information about sexual assault and violence. If you or someone you know may be dealing with anything of this nature, Hope College has an anonymous reporting form you can access here.
On March 3, Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman in London, was last seen walking home from a friend’s house around 9:30 p.m. Everard was wearing bright clothing, walking through a well-lit and popular area and was on the phone with her boyfriend. About a week later, a former police officer has been charged with her murder and kidnapping.
This tragedy has highlighted the issue of violence against women worldwide. This also comes in the wake of a World Health Organization report that one in three women face physical or sexual violence from a partner. This has been shown to affect young women and poor women the most, and although the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were not included in the report, it suggests that the pandemic has likely made the situation far worse.
As the international conversation surrounding violence against women continues, Hope’s Title IX office provided further insight into the difficult topic. Sara Dorer, Title IX Coordinator, and her colleagues in the Title IX office Christian Gibson, Victim Advocate, and Jill Whitcomb, Equal Opportunity and Title IX Investigator, want students to know that there is always help and support available for them at Hope.
Upon reflecting on the tragic case of Sarah Everard, the team wanted to reiterate that what happened to Everard is very tragic, but also a rare case, and that in most cases the victim often knows the perpetrator personally. However, this does not mean the case is not important to discuss and learn from. “We can’t prevent all violence, but what we hope is that people still recognize that this is a super important topic, yet the majority of perpetrators are known to their victim, and we would like people to be as mad about that as something this tragic,” Dorer said. According to the National Institute of Justice, “About 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women are perpetrated by someone known to the victim; about half occur on a date.”
“I think what it speaks to, while it is tragic that this woman died, and we grieve the loss of a life, is that it speaks to a culture that allows this to happen,” Gibson said. “That is what we often talk about when we have conversations, and what Sara is talking about, is that it all comes down all the way to our intimate relationships, where we see the majority of cases on Hope’s campus happen between people who know each other. So these power dynamics play out not only in a woman getting abducted and murdered on the street, but I think what it really comes down to is a culture that allows this to happen.”
When discussing the fact that Everard was kidnapped and murdered by a former police officer, Whitcomb wanted to address that this added factor made the case an even more rare situation. “To speak more locally, at least in the state of Michigan and even on our campus, I think police are trying to do well,” Whitcomb said. “There is a significant amount of training that is happening through partnerships with VOWA (the Violence Against Women Act). VOWA is spearheading a lot of training for police officers, and there’s the Michigan Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Treatment Board. That is the governing body that makes sure police are properly trained. Two big keys that I have seen as an addition to law enforcement in the last probably decade are that it is more informed around trauma and victim-centered. Police have had to change to do better. Rape culture was alive and well, unfortunately, and it was alive and well everywhere. It still is, and police officers need a lot of training for that.”
Additionally, the team outlined some ways for young women to feel safer, both on Hope’s campus and in general. There are many helpful resources on campus designed to keep campus safe, including the safety escort service through Campus Safety. The free, 24/7 service is available to students and faculty who would like to be accompanied to their destination safely. Additionally, it is encouraged that students utilize the strategically located blue phones around campus if they are ever in a dangerous situation such as being chased or followed by someone. The Title IX team also encourages students to practice safety in numbers, safety planning, having Campus Safety’s number on their cell phone (616-395-7770) and being aware of their surroundings. “Anything that can make you more vulnerable, you would want to eliminate,” Whitcomb said.
Social media safety was also stressed as a key way to keep students safe. “If they’ve got Snapchat, with that mapping feature turned on, turn it off. Because any point in time any one of your friends, acquaintances or anybody you’ve met in your life who can find where you are is a big deal. Meeting people online that you barely know, even if they are Hope students, and meeting them somewhere without other people around is not a good plan,” Dorer added. “Sharing too many personal details without knowing who you’re sharing them with, social media is probably a much bigger issue than walking alone at night on campus. Even though we still would recommend walking in numbers and using the escort service, social media is probably a bigger concern.” According to the Women’s Media Center, social media does play a huge role in many of these cases, with 62% of people who have been harassed saying it occured online and 26% of young women being cyber-stalked, these cases demonstrate just a few examples of how social media can be dangerous. However, as Gibson added, social media can also be a powerful tool for confronting these issues: “Thinking about social media as a tool for education, like posting articles about these things and raising awareness or a sticker on a water bottle, something that communicates what your values are, that violence isn’t tolerated, and that I’m a kind and generous person.”
The responsibility does not fall entirely on women, as Whitcomb highlighted: “We can tell women how to be safe, and I think that is such an important thing, and as I raise a nine-year-old daughter, that is something I try to do all the time. I try to give her techniques and skills to keep herself safe, but the bottom line is it should be more than just her responsibility. We’ve got a lot more work to do in society.”
Similar reflections were made about what roles men might have in confronting and eliminating this type of violence. Gibson highlighted how preventing this violence starts at an individual level and with individual relationships before it moves on to the greater community. The importance of asking for consent in all situations was also highly stressed: “Consent is something we talk about a lot in our work, but it is important to learn how it extends beyond intimate partner sexual relationships but to our personal relationships, too, and to learn how we practice and ask for consent in the relationships that we are a part of, knowing that we have our own boundaries and that we aren’t crossing other peoples’ boundaries.”
According to RAINN, consent is defined as “an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent should be clearly and freely communicated.” Consent can be withdrawn at any point in time. Someone who is drunk, unconscious or asleep, threatened or intimidated, underage or in an unequal power dynamic (ex. employer and employee) cannot give consent. “The more that we learn to do that in our smaller groups, the healthier our campus and community is,” Gibson added.
The importance of bystander intervention is also a crucial part of prevention and addressing the unhealthy culture on college campuses. “A lot of times people will start to say things out loud with groups of friends before they ever do something, like their vision of women or their vision of what a hookup looks like, or just simple, off the cuff comments like, ‘I’m gonna get some of that tonight’ or ‘I’m gonna go this party and drink a certain amount with this as my goal,’” Dorer said. “Friends should be willing to step in and challenge those statements. It’s not just jokes. I think people understand now that if you can step in and challenge the jokes that would be great, but even just those assumptions. If a person’s going out with a plan, and their goal has nothing to do with caring about themself, there’s probably some room for a friend to step in and say, ‘Is that who you want to be?’ When more than 50% of our men are willing to stand up against these types of behaviors and comments, then we’re gonna see change.” Dorer also emphasized that men should understand the definition of consent and its importance, and that alcohol can often interfere with that and create greater problems.
Whitcomb echoed these statements, adding that, “I think what the bigger population [of men] can do is when you see something, step up and say something about it. Confront someone and say ‘that’s not appropriate.’ So I think that’s just kind of important for men; we need their voice for men speaking to men.”
The Title IX office has many resources to educate, support and protect the campus community around this issue. “This is our team, and we are dedicated to this work,” Dorer said. “Christian [Gibson]’s primary role is support. She is our victim advocate, and she is confidential, so she does not have to tell me about who’s coming forward about the report, but she often gives aggregate data so we know how many cases she has heard about so that we can be honest with our community about how many cases are happening, but she doesn’t give me names. That is also true for CAPS and our campus chaplains as well. If people want confidential resources, they can go to multiple places to get support on campus.”
Dorer’s role is not confidential; however, this does not mean information will be widely shared, just that Dorer can offer further resources to file reports and learn about more options. “We encourage students to report, even if they don’t know what they want to do with it, because I am going to meet with them and talk about all of their options,” she said. “We’re not going to automatically do an investigation, we’re not going to automatically contact anybody, so by meeting with me they get to understand that they can report on campus, they can report off-campus, they can do both, they can do neither. We’re going to look at the basics: are they going to class? Are they eating, are they feeling safe in their residence hall? And if not, what can we do to try and mitigate those things? We just want to meet them where they’re at.”
Resources also include helping students safely leave unhealthy relationships, safety plans, a support group for survivors (led by Gibson) and more based on the individual situation. Only one out of three cases are being reported nationally, Whitcomb added, so it is the team’s goal to make it easier for students to get the help they need and hold others accountable. “We want the person most affected to be in the driver’s seat, because they know what’s best. There are so many options out there that not coming forward is the scary option because we’re not able to give them any resources,” Whitcomb added.
“Anyone who has experienced trauma, and sexual/domestic violence is trauma — all of us react so differently. And when we do trauma-informed training, a big refrain when it comes to working with people who have experienced trauma is to engage with them not from a place of ‘what’s wrong with you?’ but the question that we ask is ‘what has happened to you?’” Gibson added. “It helps me to have compassion and grace, especially knowing that I don’t know everything that they have experienced.”