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Penn Pilots Program to Combat Sexual Assault on Campus

May 21, 2014 By:
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One in five.
 
That’s how many women reported experiencing some form of sexual assault in their lifetime, according to a highly publicized study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
 
This and other staggering statistics surrounding the prevalence, ambiguity and underreporting of these incidents compelled Jewish Women International to come up with a way to bring male and female college students together to discuss and define sexual violence.
 
The resulting Safe Smart Dating program, which piloted at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall, won a national Laurel Wreath award this month for positive influence in the fraternal world.
 
The recognition comes as the Obama administration works to increase awareness of the issue through a new public service announcement and a White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault. In April, the task force issued its first report, which outlines how to identify, prevent and respond to the high rates of sexual assault on campuses nationwide. 
 
With all this attention, “the stakes are getting higher, and there’s more pressure on campuses to do the right thing,” said Deborah Rosenbloom, vice president of programs and new initiatives at Jewish Women International, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting and empowering women.
 
JWI hails Safe Smart Dating as the first national program on dating abuse and sexual assault for the Greek community on college campuses. Created in partnership with sorority Sigma Delta Tau and fraternity Zeta Beta Tau, both of which are historically Jewish, the program launched first at Penn, then at George Washington University and Purdue University. 
 
Penn’s reputation for thoughtful, engaged students and vibrant Greek life made it an ideal pilot location, said Dana Fleitman, the manager of prevention and training programs at JWI who helped facilitate the inaugural session in October. 
 
The curriculum stresses the importance of engaging men as allies to end violence against women and change the culture on campus. To that end, both a male and a female facilitator present the material while members from the fraternity and sorority lead smaller group discussions. The goal is to encourage students to think critically about what consent means through interactive activities, Fleitman said. 
 
“Students want to talk about sex and relationships in a safe space with their peers,” she said.
 
The biggest challenge is the ambiguity surrounding what crosses the line, said Brooke Edelman, a rising junior at Penn. As a board member and designated risk manager of the school’s SDT chapter, Edelman signed up for a webinar training to lead one of the small groups of students in discussions during the two-hour program.
 
Edelman said she thought the co-ed aspect of the program increased its impact, and it succeeded in teaching students what to do if they know someone who has been a victim of sexual assault. But, she continued, it was when she and her friends got back to their house that the real discussions began about how the content applied to them and how they would handle a variety of real-life situations. However, when asked about personal connections with victims of sexual violence, Edelman declined to give specifics because of the sensitivity involved.
 
Laurence Bolotin, executive director of ZBT, said that while there was nothing explicitly Jewish about the curriculum, it was important to partner with other Jewish organizations to raise students' awareness of these issues. The fraternity wants to teach its members what healthy relationships look like, he said, whether romantic or platonic. 
 
In addition to encouraging dialogue on college campuses, the program joins a growing number of governmental and non-governmental agencies aiming to raise awareness about the underreporting of sexual assaults.
 
Victims often choose not to report these crimes, Rosenbloom said, leading to a discrepancy between the CDC report and far lower figures that universities are required to release under the Clery Act of 1991. For example, in 2012, Penn reported 16 sexual assaults and Temple reported only three. Rosenbloom identified many barriers to reporting, including victims’ concerns that the response from campus officials or law enforcement would be inadequate or fears that they would face retribution from their perpetrators. 
 
Locally, Swarthmore College and Temple University are both under investigation for possible violations in handling reports of sexual violence and harassment, along with 55 other universities including Penn State, Princeton and Franklin & Marshall. 
 
Rosenbloom is optimistic that once students have the tools to be effective bystanders, they can also become advocates on their campuses. Now that the pilot is done, her organization is looking to revise and then expand the program, focusing on schools that have SDT and ZBT chapters. 
 
“We’re at the very beginning stages,” she said. “We’re hopeful."
 
Added Fleitman, “One program can’t fix everything, but let’s start the conversation. Let’s think in a structured way about what makes a healthy relationship.”
 
 
 

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