SHARE
The Hillsdale College admin­is­tration is working on ways to educate stu­dents about sexual assault pre­vention and reporting. Col­legian Archives

A “culture of silence” exac­er­bates the con­se­quences of sexual assault, according to Hillsdale law enforcement in a meeting with Hillsdale College stu­dents and admin­is­trators last Friday — and the college admin­is­tration intends to change that on campus by pro­viding more pre­emptive edu­cation for stu­dents regarding sexual assault.

As sug­gested by stu­dents at the meeting, the college will include training on sexual assault pre­vention and reporting in its ori­en­tation and pro­grams throughout the year, said Dean of Women Diane Philipp in an email. The admin­is­tration also intends to con­tinue to meet with the group of stu­dents who gathered with them on Friday for advice on how to share such infor­mation and to increase face-to-face infor­mative inter­ac­tions on campus between stu­dents and law enforcement offi­cials.

“There are always oppor­tu­nities to improve, and we are exploring ways to better educate stu­dents about their options for reporting sexual assault as well as how the college responds to such reports,” Philipp said. “We aim for clarity regarding the rel­evant policies and pro­ce­dures, and both as a pre­ven­tative and in response to any problems, we emphasize respon­si­bility, honesty, and respect.”

Besides improving edu­cation and com­mu­ni­cation, she said, the college does not plan to make sig­nif­icant alter­ations to its policies and pro­ce­dures regarding cases of sexual assault.

Hillsdale College Pres­ident Larry Arnn said the college takes sexual assault seri­ously and reacts with “severe steps” toward per­pe­trators. “That has included several times dis­missal from the college. Even in cases where a young man has dis­re­spected a woman ver­bally we speak to him about it and have imposed dis­ci­pline. In all cases of assault we offer help to the victim in going to the police,” he said in an email.

At Friday’s meeting, which the deans had planned for months in response to con­ver­sa­tions with stu­dents, about 10 male and female stu­dents shared con­cerns and sug­ges­tions with the college deans, Chief Admin­is­trative Officer Rich Péwé, heads of college security, and local law enforcement offi­cials, including the Hillsdale County under­sh­eriff and the City of Hillsdale chief of police. Stu­dents listed areas in which the college handles security well and areas in which it could improve.

Overall, the stu­dents agreed that Hillsdale is gen­erally a safe campus that pro­vides access to security mea­sures for stu­dents and quick responses from security and police. But stu­dents need more com­mu­ni­cation and infor­mation regarding the safety mea­sures available to them and what to do in cases of sexual assault, they said. A student-created online petition calling for the college to implement edu­cation on sexual assault in freshman ori­en­tation gathered more than 1,000 sig­na­tures in the past week.

“The thing most needed is edu­cation,” said junior Emily Heubaum, pres­ident of the Cit­izens for Self Gov­er­nance club, who attended the meeting. “We are very blessed to live in a place where we are gen­erally safe, but we kind of take that for granted. We can’t escape the reality of sexual assault.”

While empha­sizing that the college admin­is­tration main­tains strong and con­sistent com­mu­ni­cation with law enforcement, law enforcement offi­cials affirmed that more edu­cation for stu­dents on sexual assault and the reporting process is important for encour­aging stu­dents to speak out — par­tic­u­larly to the police — when a crisis happens. Oth­erwise, the silence that often sur­rounds the sit­u­ation can lead to more harm than good.

City of Hillsdale Chief of Police Scott Hephner said the number of college-related sexual assault cases his office has inves­ti­gated has remained fairly con­sistent over several years and is nowhere near a level that he would con­sider a “huge problem.” But he’s noticed an increasing awareness among women that they can talk to the police “if they feel any­thing at all is non­con­sensual.”

When a sexual assault com­plaint is brought to them, the deans present stu­dents with their options and encourage them to report the occur­rence to law enforcement, Philipp said.

But not all stu­dents choose to report to law enforcement.

Some­times stu­dents or their parents don’t want to report an assault because they fear they’ll lose control of the sit­u­ation, Hephner said. But the process is much more con­fi­dential than they may realize.

“We don’t force anyone to do any­thing,” he said, noting that any­thing a victim reports is imme­di­ately an open case and therefore hidden from the public, even under a Freedom of Infor­mation Act attempt to dis­close it.

Law enforcement officers first make sure victims are safe and feel safe, Hephner said. From there, victims choose what happens next. Often law enforcement will have a con­ver­sation with them — offering a female officer if pre­ferred — and doc­ument details to keep an official record. The infor­mation could be used for an inves­ti­gation, though Hephner said some­times victims have offered infor­mation then said they don’t want to proceed.

“We’re here working for the victim,” he said. “If the victim truly only wants us to be aware that some­thing hap­pened and absolutely would not do any­thing else, we respect that. We do not force a victim. You can re-vic­timize someone or make it worse from an emo­tional per­spective.”

But imme­diate response from law enforcement is important for several reasons, Hephner said. Non­verbal cues from victims in initial con­ver­sa­tions are critical in inves­ti­ga­tions, and evi­dence of a crime might dis­appear by the time police can inves­tigate if they’re notified too late. Fur­thermore, he said, a victim’s story can be manip­u­lated, some­times unin­ten­tionally, by the people he or she talks to about the issue, and police want to hear the story before that happens.

Stu­dents at the meeting agreed that this infor­mation from law enforcement was eye-opening and that all stu­dents on campus would benefit from hearing it, preferably from law-enforcement officers them­selves.

“It was refreshing to hear that they want to help us even if we don’t press charges,” Heubaum said.

Real­izing that stu­dents’ mis­un­der­standing of law-enforcement processes can per­petuate the culture of silence was the most mean­ingful part of the meeting, said senior Andie Chandler, former pres­ident of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. She and others at the meeting agreed that having law enforcement officers come to campus them­selves to educate student groups on the reporting process — or even simply to have face-to-face inter­ac­tions — would be ben­e­ficial.

In light of these sug­ges­tions, Philipp said the college plans to make such inter­ac­tions happen on campus.

Hephner said he sees the value of those inter­ac­tions and thinks the college started off well with the meeting last week, which he called an “eye opener.” Addi­tionally, he said he thinks the college and local law enforcement can work to build a more “unified front” in response to crises, and said he will con­tinue to stay have con­ver­sa­tions with the deans’ office about this.

“They do what they do very well, we do what we do very well. We just have to work together,” he said.

Sexual assault, said Arnn, “has in common with all physical assaults that it is an attack upon the being or center of a person. In a college, sexual assaults, and also dis­re­spectful behavior well short of that, erodes the con­nection of friendship in learning that is fun­da­mental to success.”

Chandler said student leaders can also make an effort to create awareness and con­ver­sa­tions about sexual assault that help to break the culture of silence. It’s also important for stu­dents to rec­ognize that they don’t know every­thing the deans are doing and that the deans only know as much as stu­dents tell them, she said.

Along the same lines, Heubaum said stu­dents shouldn’t be afraid of the deans or simply see them as a pun­ishing force: They truly want to help, and stu­dents shouldn’t shy from going to them in a crisis.

Junior Mayim Stith said she feels encouraged that the college plans to implement training at ori­en­tation but hopes to see spe­cific content — including def­i­n­i­tions of sexual assault and pub­lishing reporting and dis­ci­plinary pro­ce­dures — in the pro­gramming.

Péwé said the college is looking to implement some of stu­dents’ prac­tical sug­ges­tions, such as rolling out a phone app that allows them to quickly connect with security or local police.

“With the deans we have already started to research options,” he said in an email. “The hope is to roll some­thing out for stu­dents and employees in the fall.”

Both Philipp and Hephner said they care deeply about stu­dents’ safety and are available as first resources in a case of sexual assault. Hephner said com­mu­ni­cation about sexual assault and other safety con­cerns is crucial.

“The more infor­mation and com­mu­ni­cation out there, the better this is for everyone involved,” he said.

Philipp expressed the same: “The first step out of a crisis is to talk to someone,” she said.

A student who believes he or she is a victim of sexual assault can contact the Hillsdale City Police by calling 911 or campus security 24/7 at 607‑2535 or 517 – 398-1522. The deans and Director of Health Ser­vices Brock Lutz can also be reached at per­sonal phone numbers, available in student planners, in an emer­gency at any time.