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Middlebury College students confront sexual assault

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Posted on May 2, 2013 |
By Xian Chiang-Waren



collegetalk6542.jpg
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE STUDENTS Addie Cunniff, left, Emily Pedowitz, Kristina Johansson and Caitlin Waters discuss their recent trip to Washington, D.C., where they attended an event focused on teen dating violence. The students are part of a group that has developed a forum that is being used at Middlebury and other colleges to help victims of sexual assault. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — Recent events at some of Middlebury College’s peer institutions have brought the issue of sexual assault on college campuses into the national spotlight.

Dartmouth College cancelled classes for a day last month after students who participated in a demonstration to raise awareness about sexual assault received death and rape threats, as well as racial slurs, on an anonymous online forum.

Last fall, Amherst College found itself in the midst of a media flurry after a former student published a story in the campus newspaper detailing the administration’s inappropriate handling of her on-campus rape experience.

Though it hasn’t yet made national news, Middlebury College students say that sexual assault and violence happens there, too — and often.

To shed light on pervasive sexual assault incidents at Middlebury, a student group calling itself “It Happens Here” designed a personal, anonymous online forum for sexual assault survivors to share their stories. The website, www.ihhmidd.org, has been viewed over 10,000 times from places as dispersed as Indiana and Iran since it launched last week, according to student leader Luke Carroll-Brown.

Students anonymously submitted over 100 locations on campus, mostly dormitory rooms and social houses, where they said they had been raped or sexually assaulted. Seventeen students also compiled audio and written narratives of deeply personal — and often devastatingly graphic — incidents of sexual violence that they experienced on campus or during their childhood.

“Apparently my clear distress was humorous to him,” one story reads.

“To this day, I have never felt as worthless as I did in that moment,” concludes another.

It Happens Here tries to make it safe for people to come forward with their stories.

“By focusing on location, personal narrative, and anonymity, IHH campaigns empower survivors to use their personal stories to illuminate the prevalence and human impact of sexual violence while sidestepping the traditional problems involved in a survivor coming forward,” said a statement on the group’s website.

At a Tuesday forum with campus administrators, including college president Ron Liebowitz and Dean of the College Shirley Collado, students said that they hoped the model would be duplicated on other campuses.

At the forum, the students also made a presentation on their recent trip to the White House, where Carroll-Brown interned last fall. Middlebury juniors Carroll-Brown and Kristina Johansson and seniors Addie Cunniff, Emily Pedowitz and Caitlin Waters were invited to participate in an event focused on ending teen dating violence. The event included a speech by Vice President Joe Biden and was organized by Lynn Rosenthal, White House adviser on violence against women.

The students said they were impressed by national leaders’ commitment to developing programs that would change the culture that can lead to sexual assaults.

“They really emphasized engaging men and boys in social norms changing,” Johansson said.

Liebowitz and Collado noted the group’s success at capturing student interest and engagement on the subject and requested feedback from an administrative standpoint. The students suggested that training dormitory staff and creating interdisciplinary courses on gender-based violence would be important areas to explore.

Campus forums on sexual assault have drawn record crowds in recent weeks. On April 22, one-fourth of the student body turned up at the group’s second annual It Happens Here event, where students read stories aloud and participated in a two-hour forum.

While most authors chose to remain anonymous with volunteers reading their stories, five sexual assault survivors volunteered to read their own narratives. With increasing attention on the issue of sexual assault, this year’s event had a much higher turnout.

“It was totally different in emotional quality than last year,” said Carroll-Brown. “Having five students read their own stories, I think, was so important.”

Organizers hoped that survivors’ willingness to share their stories publicly indicates a shift in culture. But they are all too aware that the dialogues are not reaching those who are most likely to perpetrate a culture of sexual violence.

“Most of the people there were women,” Johansson said.

They hope in the future for more ways to increase male attendance, such as an event co-sponsorship by Middlebury’s athletic department, a tactic that has worked in the past.

“There is a certain demographic that just wouldn’t be caught dead at a sexual violence forum,” Carroll-Brown said. “Some people who really need to be hearing these stories aren’t, because somehow it’s an affront to masculinity.”

Xian Chiang-Waren may be reached at xian@addisonindependent.com.

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