Local colleges and universities are participating in a national campaign to prevent sexual assaults on their campuses, an effort that has taken on a renewed urgency in the wake of a disappearance of a University of Virginia student.
Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr., 32, was arrested last week and charged with abduction with intent to defile Hannah Graham. Graham, 18, disappeared three weeks ago after a night out with friends.
Although the exact circumstances behind Graham’s disappearance remain a mystery, Cortney Graham, a senior at Winston-Salem State University and no relation, said she recently learned some safety tips to protect herself.
“Don’t mix your liquor and your loving because you cannot legally give your consent,” Graham said. “Don’t walk alone when it’s dark. Use common sense.”
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden launched the initiative called “It’s On Us,” on Sept. 19 in the White House. Student leaders from nearly 200 U.S. colleges and universities have agreed to participate in the campaign.
Campus officials throughout Winston-Salem have posted fliers in buildings and dormitories informing students and employees that Title IX prohibits sexual harassment and sexual violence on campuses. The schools also provide brochures with information to help protect their students and employees.
The National Institute of Justice found that about one in five women is sexually assaulted while they attend college. In 2009, college campuses reported nearly 3,300 sex offenses, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
“Parents can do everything they can to support their kids’ dreams of getting a good education,” Obama said in a White House speech. “When they finally make it onto campus, only to be assaulted, that’s not just a nightmare for them and their families; it’s not just an affront to everything they’ve worked so hard to achieve — it is an affront to our basic humanity.”
Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972 requires colleges and universities nationwide to report the crimes that happen each year on their campuses to the Education Department.
UNC Chapel Hill and Guilford College are among 79 colleges and universities nationwide that are under investigation for Title IX violations related to sexual assault.
The statistics for local schools are much less grim.
According to the latest available figures, Wake Forest University reported 16 sex offenses from 2010 to 2012.
Penny Rue, WFU’s vice president for campus life, said that some students don’t report being sexually assaulted.
“There are many more students who would seek confidential counseling,” Rue said.
Sara Hendricks, a WFU senior from Vienna, Va., acknowledged the sexual assaults on her campus.
“It’s a national issue,” Hendricks said. “Wake Forest is not exempt from that. For most part, I do feel safe on campus.”
Winston-Salem State University reported seven sex offenses during that period.
Silvia Ramos, WSSU’s Title IX coordinator, declined to comment on WSSU’s numbers. She said that the university has taken several steps to protect its students.
The UNC School of the Arts and Salem Academy and College each reported two sex offenses from 2010 to 2012, according to the statistics. Forsyth Technical Community College reported no sex offenses during that period.
“Salem is firmly committed to providing individuals, who study, live and work on the campus with an environment that is free from sexual harassment and violence,” Anna Gallimore, Salem’s Title IX coordinator, wrote in an email.
James Lucas, UNCSA’s Title IX coordinator, said that the students’ safety is critical.
“We feel like we are accountable to what happens to our kids,” Lucas said. “We take it very seriously.”
Hendricks and female students at WSSU, UNCSA and Forsyth Tech say they always carry their cell phones with them while they attend their classes and other activities on campus.
Hendricks said she is involved with the student group PREPARE (Policy Group on Rape Education, Prevention and Response). The organization helps educate the Wake Forest community about rape and sexual assault and provide support for students who are victims of those crimes, according to its website.
Brandon Bowden, a WSSU senior from Albemarle, said he knows many WSSU female students who carry Mace or pepper spray on their key rings. Bowden said that he and other male students should escort female students safely to their destinations at night.
“We just can’t be bystanders,” Bowden said.