Making College Campuses SAFER

By Marianelli Agbulos

With the increasing number of colleges being added to the United States’ watch list for violating Title IX regulations and facing lawsuits from students, higher education institutions are facing wavering levels of trust from parents and students.  After all, as Senator Kristen Gillibrand states, “the price of a college education should not include a 1 in 5 chance of being sexually assaulted.”  Students are now holding their campuses accountable for the mishandlings of cases – and SAFER supports these students to ensure their campaigns are successful.

Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER) is a student-run, volunteer-facilitated organization that fights sexual violence and rape culture, by providing resources to students for them to create campaigns to reform college sexual assault policies. This student-run initiative engages and aids college students to deal with the fine print details of school policies by training and mentoring them throughout the policy reform process.  These students aren’t just a force for change; they are also the initiators of change.

Besides working directly with students, SAFER’s legislative work with Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) has been instrumental in making sexual assault policies more survivor-focused and in holding campuses accountable for their decisions.  SAFER has been engaged in the legislative process, by outlining what the priorities should be and in creating a safe space to talk about these issues.  Among these priorities is the bipartisanCampus Accountability and Safety Act (CASA), which will create new transparency requirements and enforce stiffer penalties for violating the Clery Act and Title IX, among a few of its requirements.  In the upcoming years, SAFER is looking forward to have legislation further endorse and implement CASA, while establishing Title IX punishments.

In my interview with Tracey Vitchers, a current SAFER board member, she described a moment when a University official once told her that “students come to campus with diverse ideas of violence,” and that administration officials need a monetary incentive to take “serious action” on reforming sexual assault policies.  Furthermore, she found that many colleges claimed to be under-funded and under-staffed in handling sexual violence cases.  However, Vitchers retorted,

You can tell a college’s values by looking where the money is allocated.  It is the President’s job to make the budget and the Board of Trustees to approve it.  Colleges that allocate a large amount of money to the athletics department can redirect some of that money to creating sexual assault awareness programs and initiate climate surveys to get student feedback.

The people behind SAFER are driven individuals who wish to see victims of sexual assault get justice.  Vitchers, herself, was a Women’s Gender Studies major who became involved in sexual violence and gender sexuality issues, after learning about the group from her swimming teammate.  Her friends would tell her stories of being sexually assaulted, but none of them would report the crimes to or get help from school.  It was from these stories that Vitchers realized that the reporting process could be a barrier for many victims to getting help, and it’s what led her to work with Jess Ladd on Callisto (a third-party sexual assault reporting system) for Sexual Health Innovations.

Vitchers believes that college sexual assault is a feminist issue.  With college sexual assault gaining media attention, so have feminism and its debatable definition.  It isn’t just women who are victims of sexual assault, but also men and LGBTQ individuals.  According to Vitchers,

It’s feminists who pushed this issue (sexual violence) to the spotlight, engaging survivors in how to approach sexual violence.  A feminist issue is an ‘everybody’ issue; and I believe feminism requires an intersectional community-based approach that keeps in mind everyone’s socioeconomic status, as well as the oppressions they face. Everyone comes to the table with unique perspectives, and feminism calls for equality for all persons.

Making campuses safe is not an individual effort, but a collective effort.  While it’s easy to blame school officials for not taking sexual assault cases seriously, we also have to hold ourselves accountable to the attitudes we have towards combatting sexual violence.  A united and informed front is better than fighting alone – and SAFER is proof of that. 

Join us in integrating our actions against abuse by checking out additional content on college assault in our “Topics” section.