by Julia Suklevski
Based on the well-publicized number of sexual assault cases on college campuses across the United States, many might assume that these assaults are occurring at an alarming rate. They would be correct. But this is no recent phenomenon. For decades, the epidemic that has been impacting our nation’s college students was something that administrations did not want to admit was actually happening. This resulted in injustice for survivors, their experiences invalidated by the institution that was to provide them equal access to a safe learning environment.
I serve as a volunteer Domestic and Other Violence Emergencies (DOVE) Program Advocate at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Washington Heights, and I’m a student studying in the Women’s Studies department at City College. So domestic violence and sexual assault are issues I think about and discuss often, and why I, along with Arlene Verapen, was inspired to help bring an important documentary,The Hunting Ground, a film that has been screened on college campuses all over the nation, to further the discussion at The City College of New York.
The Hunting Ground (2014), a documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, was screened on April 22nd and April 23rd, to members of the City College community, as well as concerned members of the public. The film, directed by Academy- and Emmy Award-winning documentarian Kirby Dick, follows two survivors turned activists for a grassroots movement to strengthen alliances between survivors of sexual assault and the public. These advocates used their voices to raise awareness about how college administrations handle cases of sexual assault and violations of Title IX.
Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, who were sexually assaulted during their first year of college, are highlighted in the film for their dedication to the idea that survivors of sexual assault do not have to remain victims of policies and barriers that prevent them from seeking justice. They advocate for thorough investigations of their respective university’s Title IX violation, an equality law that institutions receiving federal financial aid must uphold. Title IX protects students from experiencing discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs and activities at universities that receive federal funding. Discrimination on the basis of sex can include sexual harassment or violence, such as rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual coercion.
If a university’s administration fails to uphold the Title IX policy by not responding promptly and effectively to sexual harassment or assault, it creates a hostile environment for the survivor. This hostile environment gives the student the right to proceed with filing a report to the Department of Education that the university is in violation of Title IX. Clark and Pino did just that at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill following their assaults. They inspire thousands of individuals across the nation’s universities to explore this option if they also experienced poor follow-through of their reported sexual assaults. Women’s Studies Program Coordinator Arlene Verapen says, “Opening the eyes of the general population is important for change. Annie’s and Andrea’s stories are catalysts for an important movement on college campuses. Educating our community about Title IX is the key to finding justice.”
The documentary goes on to explain the many layers and complexities that hinder survivors from receiving the justice they deserve. Universities are large institutions that receive funding from the government, as well as private donors and alumni. Its reputation oftentimes trumps the dignity of the survivor. In a society where rape culture is not only disturbingly present, but in some cases, encouraged, it is unfortunately easy to see how the epidemic continues to grow, silently but with great force.
Professor Patricia Ackerman, Director of the Women’s Studies Program at City College, moderated the community conversation following both screenings. Members of the panel included myself, Michele A. Baptiste, the Title IX coordinator for CCNY, Romy Fabal, Student Health Services Staff Nurse; Teresa Walker, Executive Director of Student Health Services; Dr. Laura Iocin and Dr. Erin Jeanette of the Counseling Center; and Professor Teresa Lopez-Castro and Professor Lesia Ruglass of the Psychology Department. The Office of Public Safety was also present.
As someone who has had individuals very dear to me experience sexual assault and did not receive adequate support from a school administration, it pains me to think that so many individuals have no option but to remain silent about assault. As a trained advocate and crisis counselor to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, I was heartened to see the number of people who made time to attend the screening. It was a powerful moment during a crucial time: we must continue to push awareness and ongoing dialogue in order to combat decades of negligence and injustice.