New tack needed on sexual assault prevention

Every once in a while, it unfortunately takes a tragic event to prove a point that should not need to be proven — that rape can happen at Yale. But that realization also offers the University an opportunity to work harder so that rape doesn’t happen. And in the wake of the arrest of a East Windsor, Conn. police officer earlier this month for the alleged sexual assault of a graduate student on campus, the Yale community is right to rethink its system for preventing sexual violence.

Yale certainly makes an effort both at preventing sexual assault and offering support to victims, starting with orientation programs at the very beginning of freshman year. But that effort tends to be largely decentralized, with student organizations, University health professionals, and campus police all taking on distinct and somewhat separate tasks. And as the campus advocacy group Rape and Sexual Violence Prevention has argued, the power of these groups to accomplish their goals is limited because they are so diffused.

As the system currently stands, no one place serves as a resource for educating the community on how sexual violence can be prevented, and no one individual takes responsibility for making sure Yale’s services operate properly. On a campus that needs to better publicize the options available to victims of sexual assault or rape, achieving that goal is much more difficult when there is no single institution or place to go to when a crime occurs or a concern arises. And in the worst-case scenario, the confusion created by a decentralized system may prevent victims from seeking immediate help — a chilling prospect when a quick response to a rape is often necessary to solve a crime.

The solution appears to be relatively simple: create a single office on campus that will coordinate sexual assault prevention efforts. Following a model currently used at Harvard, this new institution — housed, perhaps, at University Health Services — could serve both as a clearinghouse for information about campus policies and statistics and a first resource for students with concerns. With such a center, the options available for students should not diminish, but it should be easier to find all of them at once.

Likewise, creating a new office for rape prevention and a strong coordinator to direct it would allow Yale to build a system that adapts as new challenges arise. In part, the University has earned criticism for its policies on sexual harassment and violence — particularly following writer Naomi Wolf’s ’84 allegations against English professor Harold Bloom last year — because it has lacked a public figure who can demonstrate the University’s commitment to preventing those crimes. Without a doubt, top-level administrators should take the ultimate responsibility for creating a campus where students feel safe. But the presence of a University official who works day in and day out to ensure that Yale does the best possible job of preventing sexual violence would better assure the community that its concerns are taken seriously. Until that presence exists, we will continue to live on a campus that refuses to tolerate sexual violence — but may not know how to prevent it, either.

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