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OSAPR Faces Sexual Assault on Campus

Part III in a IV Part Series

By Eric P. Newcomer and Alice E. M. Underwood, Crimson Staff Writers

(Part I, Part II, and Part IV of this story appeared on April 30, May 3, and May 7, 2010.)

Late at night—as often as two or three times a week—Sarah A. Rankin, the director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, wakes up in the dead of night to the ringing of her cell phone.

She answers the calls, which range from late-night panic attacks about past sexual assaults to questions about what to do immediately after a rape has taken place. Some nights she gets in her car and rushes to meet the caller, occasionally taking the person to the hospital herself.

As Harvard’s go-to contact for victims of sexual assault, Rankin has taken on the job of listening to, talking to, and advising survivors of sexual assault, no matter the time of day or night.

“Someone has to be available 24/7,” she says. “People need to talk about it when they need to talk about it.”

After seven years, OSAPR has established itself as a hub for issues surrounding sexual assault—whether by helping recent victims cope with their traumatic ordeals, educating the campus at large about sexual violence, or rallying men on campus to play a role in combatting these often overlooked issues.

The two and a half-member office has, by most accounts, been an invaluable resource for undergraduates, though beginning next academic year it will face the challenge of expanding its services to the entire University without any additional staff or resources.

CONSTRUCTING A NEW RESOURCE

After two high-profile cases of sexual assault occurred on Harvard’s campus in 2002, students and faculty urged the administration to address the problems surrounding sexual assault, according to Susan B. Marine, assistant dean of students and director of the Harvard College Women’s Center.

Additionally, a student anonymously filed a complaint about a change in the College’s procedure for handling sexual assault cases, which launched a U.S. Department of Education investigation to determine whether the University was violating federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs.

While the inquiry eventually concluded that Harvard had not violated federal regulations, the investigation resulted in the formation of the Leaning Committee, which re-evaluated the College’s sexual assault policies. The committee eventually recommended the creation of OSAPR, an increase in sexual assault prevention education, and several changes to the procedure the Administrative Board—the College’s primary disciplinary body—follows when handling sexual assault cases.

“It would never have happened without student activism holding the institution accountable,” says Marine, the original director of OSAPR. “We had the opportunity to build a model program dedicated to comprehensive services for survivors.”

The Leaning Committee, chaired by Human Rights Professor Jennifer Leaning, ruled that the office should employ two and a half full-time staff members, establish a 24-hour crisis line, and coordinate events signifying commitment to education and prevention work on campus.

The office opened in July 2003, and by the accounts of students and administrators, it has been successful in achieving the objectives set forth by the committee.

Marine says that prior to the creation of OSAPR, the only recourse for students who had been sexually assaulted was University Health Services, which she says did not always have the resources for the specific physical and psychological aid needed by victims.

SERVICES FOR SURVIVORS

In keeping with its focus on being a source of support for sexual assault survivors, OSAPR recognizes that its primary service is to provide victims with someone to speak with about their experiences.

The OSAPR employees—Rankin, an education specialist, and a prevention specialist—and OSAPR’s student volunteers offer generally non-directive advice regarding the Ad Board, medical and legal recourses, therapy, and other possible outlets for survivors.

In addition to gaining information about the range of resources available to victims, many survivors use the office as a place to grapple with their complicated emotions and stories.

“I think many survivors feel that the best way they can heal is by talking about their experience and just having someone there to listen,” says Julia H. Nunan-Saah ’11, an OSAPR volunteer. “With traumatic experiences like rape, it helps to be able to recount the event to someone who will be supportive and allow the survivor to feel sad or angry, or whatever other emotions may come up.”

In addition to OSAPR’s hotline, there are several other outlets for students—whether they are victims, friends of victims, or people who just need to talk—to find someone willing to listen while respecting their anonymity.

The most prominent is Response, a peer-counseling line whose counselors—all female undergraduates—are trained by the OSAPR staff to provide both immediate aid for sexual assault victims and support for people facing domestic abuse or other relationship issues.

“We’re there to be with survivors and help them process their emotions by acting as a sounding board for their experiences,” said the co-director of Response, who asked to remain anonymous because Response is a confidential organization. She added that as helpful as Rankin and the OSAPR staff are, sometimes victims just want to talk to a fellow student.

NO ‘STRANGER IN THE BUSHES’

While OSAPR and Response try to ease the healing process for students who have experienced the trauma of sexual assault, the office is also working to fight sexual assault before it occurs.

“Prevention is about managing risks that will reduce the possibility of violence and about creating a culture where it is unacceptable to commit rape,” Marine says. She adds that in order to effectively put a stop to violence, both women and men must confront the reality of sexual assault and change their attitudes about when and how frequently sexual assault takes place.

One major obstacle to prevention, she says, is students’ assumption that sexual assault is a rare occurrence and will never happen to them.

“Virtually no one is raped by a stranger jumping out of the bushes,” she says, adding that many people take refuge in this stereotype to avoid the notion that rape could happen to them or someone they know.

“People tend to distance themselves from a feeling of vulnerability, and the only way to make emotionally difficult topics more realistic and more relevant to their lives is to have more people talking about it,” Marine says.

She says that OSAPR workshops, particularly the mandatory educational performance “Sex Signals” at the beginning of freshman year, are the best ways to combat the idea that sexual assault is not a problem relevant to Harvard students.

The co-director of Response says that, in addition to these workshops, creating a space for open dialogue on campus is an important step toward preventing future cases of sexual assault. She says that a significant reason people dismiss sexual assault is because they are reluctant to recognize that the majority of sexual assault cases are perpetrated not by the “stranger in the bushes,” but by an acquaintance, romantic interest, or even significant other.

“Coming to the realization that sexual assault could happen in your own dorm room with a friend or a person you’re seeing is really scary to think about, but it’s something you can’t deny,” she says, adding that many people dismiss this possibility by telling themselves that it could not happen to them.

“The key to an open dialogue is for people to realize that these experiences could happen to them or someone they care about,” she says. “For those of us who already recognize this is, it’s our responsibility to step up and start a wider dialogue.”

Marine says that the visible presence of OSAPR and the work it does to publicize the issue serve as a constant reminder of the existence of sexual assault on campus.

“There are very inexact ways of knowing whether OSAPR’s presence is changing people’s behavior, but it’s certainly raising reporting rates,” she says. “The virtue of having an office at all puts it on people’s radar, and the by-product is more awareness. Ideally that will ultimately result in fewer instances of sexual assault.”

AN EXPANDED MISSION

While Response and OSAPR have become central to Harvard College’s response to sexual assault, few other colleges have similar programs or offices to address these problems on their campuses.

“We’re able to offer students a place that provides comprehensive resources 24/7,” Rankin says, adding that few campuses provide this level of support. “We are very proud of our office. It’s small, but it exists.”

While it currently only works with undergraduates, the office will expand its services to the entire Harvard community beginning next fall.

As part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ budget cuts—which began nearly two years ago—OSAPR’s budget was reduced by 25 percent, according to Rankin, and the office will not see an increase in its budget or the number of staff members as it expands to serve the entire University.

While Rankin says the office already fields phone calls and drop-ins from graduate students, its new purview will almost certainly be accompanied by an increase in responsibilities.

“OSAPR provides critical and compassionate services to students who are victims of sexual assault, as well as to their friends and significant others,” wrote Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds in an e-mailed statement. “This decision will send a stronger, clearer message to students at all Harvard’s Schools that they can turn to OSAPR for assistance.”

—Melody Y. Hu contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Eric P. Newcomer can be reached at newcomer@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Alice E.M. Underwood can be reached at aeunderw@fas.harvard.edu.

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