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.