Guest column: What we can do to prevent more sexual assaults on college campuses

Jan 27, 2014

An extensive piece of investigative journalism answers some questions about the events leading up to MU student Sasha Menu Courey’s 2011 suicide, but leaves many more unanswered. 

Credit cindyt7070 / Flickr

Who exactly knew about Menu Courey’s alleged rape, and when?

What responsibility, both legally and ethically, did those individuals have once they learned of it?

What could have been done?

What should have been done?

It’s this last question that gives pause to us at the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Because we know Sasha Menu Courey was not alone. Unknown numbers of students are sexually assaulted and raped every year at university campuses across the nation, and with each incident that makes its way into public light, we hear that same exact question.

What should have been done?   

Too often, people try to answer that question by deciding what the victim should have done. She should’ve called police immediately. She shouldn’t have been drinking. She should’ve avoided that situation, somehow. But these victim-blaming answers aren’t answers at all, because even though we hear them time and again, they clearly fail to stop perpetrators from committing acts of rape and assault.

That’s why MCADSV advocates for active bystander intervention, which is a belief that each individual in a community should contribute to its safety. In this case, that community is a university campus of students, professionals and other staff members, and each of those individuals has a responsibility for creating a community in which rape and assault are not tolerated, in which perpetrators are held accountable, and in which victims are assisted in finding the support services they need to deal with the trauma of their attacks.

Bystander intervention isn’t difficult. It’s checking in with friends and making sure those who have been drinking are safe. It’s being aware of potentially dangerous situations and stepping in to stop them from escalating. It can range from volunteering with an anti-violence group on campus, to refusing to laugh at jokes about rape. Regardless of what an individual does, bystander intervention is about cultivating an environment of safety and knowing that those around you are doing the same. It’s about holding one another to a standard of personal respect for everyone in that community.

We can only speculate about what such an environment would have done for Menu Courey, had she felt secure in her support from university staff and other students. We can only speculate about what such an environment would have done regarding her alleged perpetrators.

The real question to ask here is not what should have been done. It’s what should be done now. What should we do now to prevent this tragedy from happening again? What should we do now to create safer environments on all our college campuses in Missouri and the nation?

We can teach all college students more about rape, assault and the myths of victim-blaming rationales. We can teach them about sexual consent, and how Missouri laws recognize that intoxicated people cannot consent.

We can teach students about bystander intervention. We can teach them that the responsibility for a safer campus falls on each of them.

In addition, we can teach university and college staff members more about trauma-informed responses and how to recognize signs of mental and emotional distress. We can teach staff members more about how to provide support in cases of rape and assault, how to help victims find the resources they need, and how to balance confidentiality with holding perpetrators accountable.

These are things we can do, if universities and colleges are willing to make such education a priority.

So we ask: what are we willing to do now? 

Zachary Wilson is the development director at the Missouri Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Abuse, a statewide group of organizations and individuals working to end violence against women and children. For a summary of Missouri rape laws, click here to download a document put together by the coalition.