By Janna M Hall
For many high school seniors, the thought of finally leaving the nest and embarking on their first year away from home is exhilarating. Not only are you 18, technically an adult, and spending the next four years actually focused on the path your future will take, but you get to navigate through this next phase without a parent to answer to or a curfew to abide by. It’s the moment our youth yearn for! It’s so exciting, in fact, that the very students who were once at the top of the food chain as high school seniors don’t mind returning to the bottom of the totem pole as freshmen. This newfound independence means turning the key to your own door—even if just a dorm room— and meeting people from all walks of life who you’d otherwise never meet. College means exposure to different lifestyle, schools of thought, and career paths. For some, it means exposure to people of a different race, and for others, it’s a place where students can finally surround themselves with students who share their cultural experiences. It’s a scary time, for sure, but the exposure is necessary for growth.
Unfortunately, college also means exposure to high risk situations and poor decision-making. Underage drinking has somehow become an integral part of college culture, and many of our students have succumbed to pressure to consume alcohol in order to truly get what they believe is a complete undergraduate experience. The dangers that come with drinking—whether underage or legal—are serious, and through the haze of college fun must come a serious understanding of how to keep themselves and others safe at all times.
September is Campus Safety Awareness Month, and all month long we’re discussing the importance of our students enjoying this new phase without causing harm to themselves and others. Too often we discuss the academic side of college—setting goals, establishing strong study habits, building relationships with professors and getting involved on campus—but we don’t address the potential danger that comes with your growing social life.
In 2000 and 2007, the National Institute of Justice conducted two extensive studies on campus sexual assault cases, and the findings were astounding. The study found that an estimated 20% to 25% of women were victims of completed or attempted rape over the course of their college career. Not only is this statistic appalling, but there still remains a lack of conversation about women’s safety, the lack of protection for female students, and what consent actually means. As a result, nearly a fourth of our young women are leaving what is supposed to be an incredible four years full of freedom and independence with painful memories and trauma that last far beyond graduation day.
The studies also found that most sexual assaults occur in September, October, and November, and on Friday and Saturday mornings between midnight and 6 a.m. Also noted is that freshmen and sophomores are at a greater risk for victimization than juniors and seniors. So what does this mean for our students?
In addition to having conversations with female students about the importance of remaining alert while out, drinking responsibly (if over 21), and never leaving your drinks unattended, we must have the conversation with our young men about what consent means, respecting when a young woman says “no,” and ensuring that if they see an incapacitated woman, they call for help and make sure she gets home safely. Despite the college culture of drinking games, late nights, and wild parties, students must practice responsible behavior and respect themselves and the students you’re with.
For students who do become victims of sexual assault, it’s important to report the incident to the police and receive help right away. Too often, young women do not report incidences for fear of being shamed or not believed, resulting in a litany of post-traumatic effects that can impact their collegiate experience both academically and socially. It’s imperative, though, that victims put themselves first and seek counsel and therapy. The Richmond YWCA offers a plethora of resources online and on site for both survivors and women looking to prevent and combat domestic and sexual violence. They also offer counseling services and a free and confidential regional hotline for women needing help. Richmond-based students should take advantage of organizations like the YWCA that have made it their mission to protect women and provide a safe space with which women can discuss trauma and receive immediate support.
While a largely under-discussed topic on both campus and in the mainstream media, sexual assault is not the only danger students face on college campuses. Temptation to indulge in heavy drinking runs high in college, but part of remaining safe on campus is exercising restraint and knowing your limit. Binge drinking, while glorified as an inescapable part of college life, leads to poor decision-making, such as wandering off alone at night, befriending and entrusting strangers, and becoming confrontational as a result of your impaired state. It is crucial that students develop accountability buddies who can be an extra set of eyes and ears and ensure that responsible drinking is taking place. The buddy system is also critical for nighttime outings; walking back to the dorm rooms alone is dangerous, even if the university provides emergency call stations throughout campus.
Students at schools like VCU, University of Richmond, and Virginia Union are faced with a greater risk; the campuses are intertwined with the city of Richmond, so there’s a strong possibility that the people they’ll encounter at off-campus parties aren’t students at all. Remaining alert enough to identify any suspicious behavior from someone not expected to uphold a university’s Code of Conduct is key.
“At Virginia Tech, I developed a core group of friends, both guys and girls, and we made sure to befriend other core groups,” Chesterfield native and Virginia Tech alum Tiona Bland explains. “When we hosted or attended parties, it made identifying our partygoers so much easier; nearly our entire party was full of different groups who were all familiar. We didn’t even know it at the time, but it helped us identify any suspicious activity or notice when someone we didn’t know came in.”
Bland spent her four years at Virginia Tech mentoring incoming freshmen on the importance of building a strong accountability system. She strongly believes in the beauty of meeting people and making new friends while out at parties, but having a network of people who will hold you accountable and look out for the safety of the group makes all the difference.
Campus safety isn’t something that just happens; it requires an acute understanding of the dangers that surround college living and a conscious effort to make it safer for everyone. As students enter the new phase of their life, they should be able to enjoy all the excitement and growth that comes with their new independence. September is a great month to start the conversation around the sexual assault and toxic drinking habits that happens on college campuses, but we should all be dedicated to keeping the discussion going all year long.
Photo credit: Ervin B. Clarke, Virginia Commonwealth University Campus