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Failing the 48 percent

Last week, to the shock of many students, an article on the 2018 Duke Student Experience Survey revealed a scandalous statistic: 48 percent. The report chronicled student experiences around sexual assault and harassment as well as their perceptions of campus restorative systems. The standout headline among the 75 pages of the report is the result that 48 percent of female survey takers reported being sexually assaulted while at Duke, up from 40 percent in 2016. While speaking about sexual assault strictly through cold percentages does a disservice to its very human victims, these deeply disturbing numbers frame our understanding of the full extent of the violence perpetuated here at Duke. 

It may be hard to pinpoint what factors may have caused this increase—whether it is a result of actual growing rates of sexual assault or whether survey respondents felt more comfortable disclosing their experiences—but nonetheless this data remains troubling for us as a campus community. Rates of sexual assault that are this high at a school which purportedly prides itself on representing a safe, diverse community, speak volumes about how poorly we reconcile our own complicit involvement on the matter. 

Procedures and policies at Duke are partly to blame for failing sexual assault victims. According to the survey, less than 60 percent of female undergraduate respondents reported they thought Duke would take their case seriously if they were assaulted and an abysmal 38 percent of female undergraduates reported that Duke properly investigates sexual assault. A lack of faith in this system not only directly leads to underreporting of violence, but also speaks to how little the voices and experiences of sexual assault victims are valued on this campus, specifically when those victims are female, queer, non-white and/or disabled. This is not just an administrative problem and cannot simply be resolved through a simple policy change. The culture that we create and perpetuate on this campus determines the perception we have of those around us and it is our burden as students to change it when people are not valued.

Our conception of what community represents on this campus remains extremely limited. While we create community among our friends, among living groups and Greek organizations, we are taught more than anything else to make our Duke experiences about ourselves, focusing on getting the most out of this school regardless of how it affects the people that surround us. We are engrossed in a mindset of egotistical individuality. This lack of communal empathy and understanding is part of the reason why there exists such large disparities between the ways that male and female respondents felt about identical processes: there was a 19 percentage point difference between male and female respondents who thought Duke properly investigates sexual assault. 

A guilty verdict by Student Conduct for sexual assault is not the sole indicator of whether the assaulter should feel remorse. We hesitate to call out the actions of our friends or peers who harass others through words and behavior because of how it could negatively impact such friendships. Neither of these approaches centers the victims of these actions, who are oftentimes forced to confront the aftermath of non-consensual sexual contact alone. Our focus for sexual assault prevention and response should follow a restorative justice framework at all levels. Restorative justice seeks to center the healing of the person who was harmed and is founded in a communal focus on listening and empathy. These frameworks have been successfully adopted at an institutional level by other universities as part of the student conduct side of assault, but we should seek to adopt them within the smaller communities in which we exist at Duke. However, being able to successfully implement these practices requires an active effort to listen to those around us and incorporate the feedback of sexual assault victims. 

The Student Experience Survey serves as a basis for how we understand the experiences of victims of sexual assault and harassment at Duke, and while these most recent results are cause for deep concern and alarm, they are also an indictment of a problematic campus culture that allows us to see so many of our peers assaulted. Assault prevention and response strategies place an undue burden on victims of assault to report their assaults, deal with the repercussions of the student conduct process and to advocate for changes in policy and culture. There are policy changes that are necessary to ensure the safety and inclusion of students who are more vulnerable, but no policy change that comes from an administrative level will be able to change students perceptions of what it means to be an active part of the Duke community.

This was written by The Chronicle’s Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff. 

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