In light of the public response to the recent crime report, we have had cause to reflect on the nature of how we, as members of the public, respond to issues of interpersonal violence and sexual assault. As students, as women, and as members of the community, we were compelled to comment not only amongst ourselves but to the community as a whole on the ways we react and respond to such crimes. After discovering that each of us had our own personal response to the circumstances at hand, we have decided to offer those responses here. We hope, in offering our opinions, to encourage an ongoing dialogue on the best way to respond to these types of events – though we hope they will be few – in the future.
I opened the crime alert at 11:47 p.m. – a few hours after, I noticed, it was originally sent. At the time, I had been poring over one assignment or another (it all begins to blur the second-to-last week of the semester) and so had failed to compulsively check my email and various social networking sites for the last few hours. This is when I read the email; there was something very wrong about it that I was surprised no one else I knew had (publically, anyway) picked up on. Full disclosure: I am that person among my friend group, that person who forever takes some issue with everything, the feminist killjoy who rages impotently against The Machine and spoils everybody’s fun.
Occupying that position results in me constantly second-guessing if this issue is the hill I want to die on, if what I’m saying is worth it or a waste of air, if I’m taking everything too seriously and just need to take an angry nap.
In any case, I posted a Facebook status about it. I figured it would go by unnoticed as my snarky two-line tirades so often do, maybe earning a stray “like” from one of my more cynical friends. But when it got “liked,” and “liked,” and “liked” again, I knew I wasn’t just overreacting.
I won’t dwell on the problematic implications of the message – my coauthors have done a fine job outlining them, and the apology offered by Chief McAvoy that followed the original message was a definite step in the right direction that addressed many of the issues raised by the public.
No, what disappointed me more than the implications of the initial response was the lack of professionalism displayed by the department. The hyper-specificity of the release offered details that were functionally irrelevant, describing just one of many thousands of scenarios that could facilitate a sexual assault that we should “watch out for.” Is it a good idea to avoid being alone with a stranger? Probably. Will having that knowledge alone increase my safety significantly? Unlikely.
The follow-up response email offered the excuse that the original email was sent out, in large part, because of the federal mandate for timely reporting of crimes that may pose an ongoing danger to students. Yet a quick look in the federal handbook on Campus Safety and Security Reporting – which is freely available online for any of my pedantic peeps out there who might wanna take a look – gives details on when not to report that happens to include an example of circumstances almost identical to the ones that occurred here: “If a rape is reported on campus and the alleged perpetrator has not been caught, the risk is there. If the alleged perpetrator was apprehended, there is no continuing risk.” If the measuring stick by which these alerts are issued is that the crime “could happen again,” they would be issued after every crime, because any crime “could” happen at any time, couldn’t it?
The thing is: in a crime event such as this where the suspect has been apprehended, there are no “real, immediately applicable” tips to be offered, because the crime being committed is a deeply-embedded cultural phenomenon with infinitesimal possibilities rather than a man-at-large situation.
After I received the recent campus crime alert email, I began to wonder about the larger problem: the way we, as a community, respond to the topic of sexual crimes and the reporting of those crimes. I remember reading the original email and wondering if I was the only one who felt that something more needed to be said within the original alert. After looking through my social media feed, I realized I was not alone in that thought. Additionally, while it was two days delayed, I was happy to see a further addendum to the alert. Over the last few days, I have been privy to several conversations, mostly among women, about the topic of sexual assault, and I have witnessed a blossoming of the power of speech to change the way we think.
The focus of any case should not remain on what the victim of a crime should have done differently, but on what the campus community as a whole can do about this societal issue. I do believe the executive committee that composed the alert sent to students had an honorable goal in mind, and I am glad that the reaction to that original email has opened up the discussion of an issue people often feel the need to internalize, to keep to themselves. Sexual assault does not go away if we pretend it does not exist. It festers and rots within our community. In addition to giving advice to potential victims, I wish the email would have also stated a fact I already know to potential predators: at Shepherd, we do not tolerate these crimes, that neither students nor anyone else should ever act as sexual predators. We should not engender a culture of silence; we should not participate in the quiet shaming of the victim. Instead, we should encourage those who have been taken advantage of to speak up. It is not an easy task.
Originally, when I agreed to be a part of this conversation, I was ignited, energized, and ready to storm the castle of social injustice. Now? Now I am tired. Even as an outside observer whose only tie to this topic is that of a third-party, I find an attempt to properly and sympathetically convey my opinions on the culture surrounding the response to sexual assault exhausting. The first of these opinions is that I have the utmost respect for those who endure this obscenity and crime against humanity, regardless of whether they choose to report or not. Speaking up against their attackers does not change the experience into a sudden heroic journey; what it does, however, is start conversations such as these.
I am confident in my assumption that how a community responds to these incidents is the single most important aspect in the battle to halt the pandemic of interpersonal violence and sexual crimes. The act of response gives way to awareness, and awareness, as corny as it sounds, gives way to preparedness.
Now, let me turn to the catalyst for my thoughts on this brand of social change. At the beginning of the week, there was a crime alert referencing a sexual assault, and no, the wording was not great, and no, the message was not clear. Regardless of the list of things I could create in reference to what they did wrong, I would rather give them a pat on the back for what they did right – they responded. Heck, they responded twice. I don’t know if their second, better-written response was spurned from a backlash to the first one or an epiphany of proofreading, and quite frankly, I am not sure I give a damn.
The conversations I have heard the last few days since the alert have centered primarily on bashing it, but you know what? The evolution of change is slow-going; it takes time and will come with screw-ups.
So let’s swing it that way: learning from mistakes. Obviously, I am going to stick to the parts of the alert that bothered me. Primarily, I had the most issue with the “what to do” part. I was appalled that a public notice sent to over 4,000 students would be so terribly written. It sets a standard of low expectations by the student body to those who are charged with protecting us. If the response is not strong, then the opinions centered on the responders is not strong. Those weaknesses in form and technique are the exact aspects of our society’s current response culture that just irk me. I understand the intention, but the execution was poor. If people are unsure how to word such a sensitive topic, they should offer links to resources, reiterate the outline of what consent is that can be found on The Campus Student Conduct Page, list the counseling services that we have on campus, or even list the locations of emergency phones. What I do know is you should not use statements that can be inferred as “if only” statements – that is really bad form.