How Local Universities Are Battling Sexual Violence

Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright is one of a number of college officials throwing their weight behind It’s On Us PA.

Illustration by Jon Krause

Two months after Jay Wright coached Villanova University’s basketball team to an NCAA championship, he stood next to Gov. Tom Wolf at a Harrisburg press conference to discuss sexual violence on college campuses. Wright has thrown his considerable influence behind It’s On Us PA, a statewide version of a national campaign aimed at countering the secrecy and shame that surrounds and enables campus sexual violence. The program defines sexual consent and encourages students to intervene in situations where consent hasn’t been—or can’t be—given. 

“We believe it’s everyone’s responsibility to create a safe, caring community and prevent sexual violence,” Wright said back in June. “This means that we step up and step in during the moments that matter.”

- Advertisement -

None of this is new to Wright or his employer. Villanova has been educating students about such issues for more than a decade. Titled after a popular Wright saying, Moments That Matter is the name of the program all Villanova freshmen and transfer students take during student orientation. Versions of it have been implemented at other universities, including West Chester and Saint Joe’s. The goal is to foster an open dialogue about drinking, drugs and sex—and what can happen when they’re mixed. Most teenagers come to campus with at least a working knowledge of drunken hookups. The point of these programs, which take place online and in person, is to educate students about the school’s policies and what happens when they’re violated. 

It begins with creating a zero-tolerance environment. “On the second day of freshman orientation, we have a program on sexual misconduct, and we give students definitions of everything from harassment to rape and stalking,” says Mary-Elaine Perry, assistant vice president for student development at Saint Joe’s and its Title IX coordinator. “We explain that it’s not the victim’s fault; we explain our investigative and judicial processes; and we explain how to keep yourself and others safe so it doesn’t happen to you or your friends.”

And yet, it still happens—far too frequently. Local universities won’t release assault statistics, but the National Sexual Violence Resource Center outlines the epidemic. According its research, one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, and 90 percent don’t report the attacks. 

“In the past few years since we’ve started talking about it, we’ve had more reports of various kinds of sexual assaults,” says Perry. “I don’t believe that means it happens more. It’s just getting reported more, and it’s a good thing that victims are coming forward. But I also know that it’s vastly underreported. It probably happened last Saturday night, and it will happen again next Saturday night.”

To deal with this reality, universities are stepping up their bystander-intervention programs. Raised with the “see something, say something” mantra, this generation is beginning to embrace the notion of keeping classmates—and even strangers—safe from harm. Since West Chester University instituted its Green Dot bystander-intervention program two years ago, more than 700 students, staff and faculty have voluntarily gone through training. Last year, the school even established a new staff position: coordinator for healthy masculinity and violence prevention. “Her job is to create programs that will help men develop a better sense of themselves and defy stereotypical male depictions,” says Lynn Klingensmith, WCU’s director of social equity. “We want young men to learn skills so they’re empowered to be better bystanders.”  

- Partner Content -

That’s the essence of Villanova’s Moments That Matter campaign, a version of which has been in place since 2003. “We talk about alcohol use and sexual violence in frank terms,” says Stacy Andes, Villanova’s director of health promotion. “It’s everyone’s responsibility to stop this. We introduce the bystander expectation and ways to intervene to interrupt situations. We want to teach them exactly how to do it.”

And there’s another target audience. During student orientation and parents’ weekend, Villanova’s assistant dean of students and Title IX coordinator, Ryan Rost, leads a workshop to educate parents about the university’s policies. “We encourage them to have conversations with their sons or daughters about scenarios they’ll encounter,” she says. 

Perry takes a more assertive approach with Saint Joe’s parents. “I meet with them during orientation and give them statistics from the prior year about that class’ rate of engagement with drugs and alcohol and the level of sexual activity,” she says. “Parents are shocked, then horrified, then scared.”

Family conversations on such difficult topics should happen long before students arrive on campus. “I’m discouraged that we are still battling this, despite the media attention, lawsuits and horrors that occur,” says Klingensmith. “But I’m encouraged because there is a strong core of people working diligently to address it.”

Our Best of the Main Line Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!