College Consortium:  Campus Survivors and Covid-19

Mar 23rd, 2021

By Gabby Leaming, Program Intern

As we reach the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hard to not look back at all that we have endured: the milestones, the hardships, and the celebrations that have all looked a little bit different. It has felt like every aspect of our lives has been dictated by this virus for the last 13 months. But while we been wrapped up in this global health crisis, are attention may have drifted away from others crises - including that of sexual violence on college campuses.

Sexual assault at universities has been arguably sidestepped as college administrations scramble to get COVID-19 cases under control. As governments and campuses across the country began closing restaurants, restricting the size of gatherings, and transitioning courses online, campus sexual assault fell from their immediate priority list. But in reality, these new implementations have not halted cases of sexual violence. Administrations have seemingly failed to realize that COVID-19 guidelines and online classes will not stop sexual assaults, and in some cases, they may actually decrease chances of reporting.

Grace Verbugge, student at Boston University who participated in February’s protests against sexual assault, said that it has become more difficult for student survivors to get help during the pandemic, claiming that it is unclear to her and other students whether they would get in trouble if they were assaulted while breaking the school’s COVID-19 rules (Ott, 2021). An important Title IX exception is intended to protect students from these disciplinary actions when reporting instances of sexual violence. However, it has been clear among university students, like Verbugge and her classmates, that they still are concerned over this. Title IX coordinator at Dartmouth University, Kristi Clemens, expressed her fear that regardless of this so-far unused exception, students are still being deterred from reporting. Sexual assault reports at Dartmouth were close to zero last fall, which earned a label of “terrifying” by Clemens who believes that this is likely not indicative of an actual end or decrease of violence during the pandemic (Yuan, 2021). Maggie Flaherty, executive chair of the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault at Dartmouth, shined light on an even more complicated aspect of this potential deterred reporting, “It’s scary if there’s a big party that’s not supposed to be happening, and there’s probably an added layer of guilt or shame that further complicates the process of reporting.” She followed this up saying that she doesn’t believe the amnesty policy in place “completely eliminates the barrier that the code places on someone who might be trying to report” (Yuan, 2021). These concerns support that this Title IX exception may not be doing enough to ensure students feel safe and comfortable reporting sexual violence.

Another consequential aspect of this situation is that many students are not surrounded by their normal support groups and are more isolated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many other students feel that the pandemic and the virtual world have become an impediment to accessing the necessary resources and help a survivor might need (Ott, 2021). That is why Maryland universities and colleges across the country need to recommit or make a new commitment to tackling the sexual assault epidemic that continues to plague college students in our state. 1 in 4 women and 1 in 16 men will experience sexual violence during their time in college, and it is unjust for college administrations to continue to overlook this crisis in the name of the COVID-19 pandemic (Brown, 2020).

But what does this mean for colleges? Kathryn J. Holland, sexual harassment and women’s studies researcher, believes campuses should continue their obligation to adapt and administer campus climate surveys specifically on sexual assault and sexual harassment. This can help the administration understand what is happening on their campus and the prevalent os sexual assault on their campus. It is essential to understand how instances of sexual violence have adapted to the virtual campus word, and postponing them for the time being, as many universities have, could be harmful to the college community. Not only should campuses focus on adapting their climate surveys, but also their other sexual assault initiatives and programs that may have been curtailed by the pandemic. Holland reminds college administrations, “We can’t check our civil rights obligations at the door when a public health crisis erupts” (Holland, 2020). In addition, campuses need to ensure and remind students that instances of sexual assault and harassment will not be punished for violating COVID-19 guidelines and that a victim or bystander will not be held responsible for this when reporting sexual violence. COVID-19 guidelines should not discourage reporting nor diminish a victim’s right to justice. 

Works Cited

Brown, O. (2020, Oct 28). Commentary: Sexual assault: the epidemic overlooked on college campuses. The Ithacan.

Holland, K.J., Cortina, L.M., Magley, V.J., Baker, A.L., Benya, F.F. (2020, Oct 28). Don’t let COVID-19 disrupt campus climate surveys of sexual harassment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Ott, H. (2021, Feb 10). Hundreds protest campus sexual assault at universities across the U.S. CBS News., K. (2021, Feb 24). A Hidden Pandemic: Preventing Sexual Assault During COVID-19 News. The Dartmouth.

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