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LI college students teach one another to prevent sexual assault

Members of the Stony Brook's Center for Prevention

Members of the Stony Brook's Center for Prevention and Outreach photographed on Thursday Dec 11, 2014. From left to right: Christine Szaraz, Prevention and Outreach Counselor, Matthew Sacco, student, Christine Publik, student, Marjorie Leonard, Director for Title IX and Risk Management, Ahmed Belazi, Director of Planning and Staff Development and Smita Majumdar Das, Assistant Director for Prevention and Outreach. Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Stony Brook University student Matthew Sacco started a campaign to educate his peers about college sexual assault that was unlike many advocacy efforts out there.

He gave out glow sticks.

Through his "Light in the Dark" project, he stood in high-traffic areas on the 24,000-student campus on Thursday nights, distributing pamphlets affixed to the neon bands. Fellow students, many on their way out to parties and bars, took them.

What started as an individual, grassroots effort caught on during the fall semester -- ending just before finals week with some 10 or 12 volunteers fanned out across campus, handing out as many as 1,000 glow sticks each week.

"It was sort of the sugar to help the medicine go down," said Sacco, 22, a graduating senior from Massapequa. "Eventually the glow sticks started to mean something and people were wearing them in solidarity."

Beyond the annual "Take Back the Night" march or the one-time discussion at freshman student orientation, colleges on Long Island are taking unprecedented measures to try to prevent sexual assault.

A tidal wave of student-led movements have been fueled by disclosures about the suspected mishandling of incident reports at the nation's elite universities -- a Columbia University student carrying a mattress around campus until her alleged rapist is expelled and a now-retracted Rolling Stone article about gang rape at the University of Virginia.

At the same time, college administrators are tightening their guidelines, reviewing their reporting and adjudicating procedures in response to greater federal and state scrutiny, including a White House public safety campaign. Parents, students and guidebooks are addressing the issue as January and February college application deadlines loom.

Officials at Long Island's public and private institutions say they are starting to offer intense bystander training to their students, particularly those who are in leadership positions such as resident assistants and captains of athletic teams. Students, experts say, are the best ambassadors for the message, which must be reinforced constantly.

Schools, including Stony Brook, Farmingdale, Hofstra and Molloy, have stepped up efforts to train some students so they can train others on campus.

"It's like the NYPD's 'if you see something, say something' campaign," said Ahmed Belazi, director of planning and staff development at Stony Brook's Office of Student Affairs.

'It's On Us' campaign

Bystander training has become a key component in the prevention of campus incidents as highlighted by an online "It's On Us" campaign commissioned by the White House. The public service announcement, which features celebrity videos, encourages members of the community to call for help or intervene in the event of a suspected sexual assault. Several local colleges have signed on to the initiative. Adelphi University is creating its own version of the "It's On Us" PSA that will launch in the spring semester.

At Molloy College, Rich Zoller, the captain of the basketball team, is among the leading advocates. He said a network of male athletes at the school are "trying to break the stereotype."

"This is an injustice because people aren't stepping in to make sure something doesn't happen," said Zoller, 21, of Syosset, who lives on campus. "We want to have a presence on the campus so that they feel like there's a family of sorts here."

With an enrollment of 4,500, officials at the Catholic liberal arts college say they are open about talking with students about relationship violence and have even become a refuge for a commuter student who had suffered an incident off-campus.

The challenge is to make sure the training is constant throughout the academic year, officials said.

"Talking about it once at orientation isn't enough," said Jean Peden Christodoulou, assistant vice president of student affairs and Title IX officer at Hofstra University.

Hofstra, with an enrollment of more than 6,800, uses a bystander intervention program called Step Up, modeled after one at the University of Arizona, in addition to an online prevention education module, campus speakers and an awareness program during welcome week, officials said.

The local effort has benefited from hundreds of national news stories during the past year documenting incidents and new studies about the prevalence of sexual assault.

"It is definitely on the forefront of the national conversation and so there's a real ripple effect," said Kristin Avery, manager of the "It's On Us" campaign, created out of a White House task force.

The campaign led 226 events nationally in 39 states during the week before Thanksgiving, providing guidance on training and a kit for campuses to create their own PSAs.

"What we have found is that some campuses are very active on this issue and others are really not addressing it at all," she said.

The long-term goal, Avery said, is to shift the conversation about sexual assault away from being a taboo topic.

Colleges urged to do more

The colleges weren't having the conversation about sexual assault often enough, and the campuses need more than training programs to combat the issue, said Olivia Tursi, counselor and licensed clinical social worker at the VIBS Family Violence and Rape Crisis Center in Islandia.

"There's enough of a need to have a full-time staffer on all campuses to reduce the risks," Tursi said.

Age-appropriate prevention programs ideally should occur before the students get to college, Tursi said, and it is possible to talk with children in elementary school about personal space and boundaries.

Nearly 90 colleges in the nation are under federal investigation for mishandling cases of sexual assault.

Meanwhile, steps to hold colleges accountable for their reporting and judicial processes have occurred on both the federal and state levels in recent months.

In October, the U.S. Department of Education published the final regulations for the Violence Against Women Act amendments to the Clery Act, which requires colleges that receive federal student aid to report campus crimes.

The regulations expand the rights of campus survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking. Colleges are required to have clearly written statements of their policies, definitions of crime and consent, and programs for counseling, health, mental health, victim advocacy, legal assistance, prevention and awareness for students and employees.

Beginning in July, the federal government will require colleges and universities to compile statistics for incidents of dating violence, domestic violence and stalking as addressed in the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act.

A Senate hearing in early December asked why sexual assault cases were not referred to local police. The vast majority are adjudicated internally, typically in a court of students, staff and faculty.

Under a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), all victims ideally would report their incidents to police.

NY's legislation efforts

On the state level, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law a Victim's Bill of Rights in addition to adopting the "Yes means yes" standard of affirmative consent in November. New York became the second state in the nation after California to have the tighter definition of consent.

State Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), chairman of the State Senate's Higher Education Committee, in October released a study that showed less than 5 percent of the incidents of sexual violence were reported to police. The report recommended improved education concerning law standards and adopting a clear definition of consent for colleges as well as standardized college disciplinary proceedings and protections for due process rights.

Veronica Henry, chief diversity officer and Title IX coordinator at Farmingdale State College, said the affirmative consent standard will heighten students' awareness.

"What impact it will have on the students? We will have to give it some time in that regard. But it is necessary because of what we know on certain campuses," Henry said.

Staff added, policies revised

To comply with the increased scrutiny, colleges are hiring more administrators, adding counselors and support staff, tweaking the language in their policy statements, and making sure any victims know where to go and what to do.

As part of the State University of New York system, Farmingdale State University, Stony Brook University and The College at Old Westbury will have to comply with added guidance and submit action plans by March.

Stony Brook additionally received in the fall semester a second round of a $540,000 grant from the Department of Justice for a comprehensive study on violence against women.

Private schools, too, are putting more resources into the changing mandates of the Clery Act and Title IX, the law that ensures gender equality in education, said Laura Anglin, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities.

Members of the commission, an association of more than 100 nonprofit private schools in the state, are seeking guidance on best practices and more effective models to heighten awareness, Anglin said.

"They want to know what makes the best environment for the students because we know that none of these cases are ever going to be easy," Anglin said.

Among the biggest critics, however, might be current and future students. Christine Publik, 20, an English major and resident assistant at Stony Brook, said she hadn't taken up the issue until someone close to her became a victim.

She will be among 50 RAs in a four-day bystander training program in early spring operated by Green Dot, an Alexandria, Virginia-based nonprofit violence prevention group. Like Sacco, who will continue to give out the glow sticks, she is looking for new ways to reach her peers.

"Nobody wants someone who looks like their mom talking to them about their sexual behavior," Publik said.

"At the same time, I think we should always demand more from the university. There is a need for change."

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