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Friday, April 20 News

Town leaders discuss campus sexual assault

When it comes to sexual assault on college campuses and the ability to investigate such cases, this year has brought some frightening numbers.

An April report by the White House shows that one in five college students is sexually assaulted on campus. Another report, released in July by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., found that more than 40 percent of surveyed schools have not conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the past five years.

In New Canaan, where more than 300 high school seniors are heading to college in the fall, sexual assault experts and town leaders are encouraging families to discuss ways to prepare students for campus life.

"Right now, there are hundreds of kids right here in New Canaan who are packing their bags, going to Bed Bath & Beyond, getting ready to go off to college," Dede Bartlett, co-chairman of the New Canaan Domestic Violence Partnership, said. "Before they go off to college, their parents and these kids need to have a conversation.

"This is a different college campus than (where) their parents were at 20, 25 years ago," she continued. "We don't want any kid from New Canaan to be one of those one in five students (who are sexually assaulted on campus)."

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Safety tips on campus sexual assault:
Beware of your surroundings. Knowing where you are and who is around may help you get out of a bad situation.
Avoid isolated areas. It is more difficult to get help if no one is around.
Travel in packs. Go with a group. Check in with each other. Leave together.
Don't leave your drink unattended while talking, dancing, using the restroom or making a phone call. If you've left your drink alone, get a new one.
Don't accept drinks from people you don't know or trust. If you choose to accept a drink, watch it being poured, and carry it yourself. At parties, don't drink from the punch bowls or other large, common open containers.
Trust your instincts. If a situation or location feels uncomfortable, it probably isn't the best place to be.
Try not to load yourself down with packages or bags as this can make you appear more vulnerable.
Have your cellphone with you and charged and have cab money.
Don't feel obligated to do anything you don't want to.
Watch out for friends. If a friend seems out of it, and appears intoxicated, get him or her to a safe place immediately.
Source: Rape, Abuse, Incest & National Network

Bartlett and other local domestic violence experts met with interim Superintendent of Schools Bryan Luizzi, First Selectman Robert Mallozzi and Sgt. Carol Ogrinc, the police department's youth officer, for a discussion on the issue at the New Canaan Police Department Monday.

Setta Mushegian, of the Stamford-based Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education, said students and parents should be aware of laws that protect them on campus. One of those laws is Title IX, a landmark federal civil right that prohibits sex discrimination in education. Another one is the Clery Act, which mandates schools to send sexual assault data to the federal government.

Connecticut, where many New Canaan High School graduates choose to continue their education, "has recently gotten a lot of attention for how our colleges and universities have handled sexual assault on their college campuses," Mushegian said.

The University of Connecticut reached a nearly $1.3 million settlement this month with five current and former students over allegations that their reports of sexual assault were mishandled.

"We also want kids to start thinking about (whether) their campus takes sexual assault seriously," Mushegian said. "Where do they go? Who's their Title IX coordinator? Who can they talk to if they do experience sexual assault? Can they report it unanimously? Do they have a women's resource center? Where do they go if something ever happens to them?"

Freshmen should ask such questions as soon as they start college so they're prepared for any potential situations, she said.

"We really do know that if campuses take it seriously, kids take it seriously," Mushegian said.

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Most often, according to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, victims are women and are in their freshman or sophomore year. Among college women, nine in 10 victims of sexual assault knew their offender, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Mushegian warned, however, that the data being reported does not tell the whole story.

Sexual assaults on college campuses are widely under-reported. In many cases, victims fear being punished for reporting an incident, especially when it involves underage drinking, and experience confusion over how to report and over the definitions of sexual assault and rape, according to McCaskill's report.

Jacqueline D'Louhy, New Canaan's youth and family services coordinator, noted that the transition to college can be a difficult time so both parents need "to stay in the loop" by, for instance, FaceTiming their children at least once a week.

"Any resentment, any problem connecting with other friends, all of that could be an indication that there might be something going on that happened, and it could be a sexual assault incident, it could be a dating violence incident, it could be a bullying incident going on," she said.

The meeting featured a college student who's been helping the New Canaan Domestic Violence Partnership spread awareness about campus sexual violence this summer. Villanova University sophomore Margie Hahn, who graduated from New Canaan High School in 2013, said she was familiar with most of the sexual assault discussions at her college orientation. She said Villanova takes sexual assault seriously, including a skit on awareness during orientation and the Stalk Street Journal, a periodical bathroom poster with information on school resources available to sexual assault victims.

She added that students should surround themselves with people they "rely on and would help you out in that kind of situation."

Bartlett said the overriding message of Monday's discussion was that "ignorance is not an option."

"There is such a tragic consequence if we don't get this message out," she said. "If these conversations with parents and their kids don't happen ... because all of us know that the wounds of sexual assault can and do last a lifetime."

Mallozzi -- whose daughter, Kit, is going to college this fall -- said Monday's discussion shows that the town understands the problem "and we want to be part of a solution."

Nelson Oliveira|Education/general assignment reporter