On June 5 at the Pelham Picture House, Pelham Together hosted a film screening of The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. The documentary highlighted alarming statistics – As high as one in four women on college campuses will be victims of sexual violence, yet less than ten percent of these incidents are reported. Half of those assaults will take place freshman year, with a spike of incidents in September. Perpetrators are rarely expelled by colleges interested in protecting their brand and avoiding lawsuits.
Following the documentary, Pelham Together Executive Director Laura Caruso led a panel discussion with three experts and a recent PMHS alum who shared her perspective on this issue as a first-year college student. The audience, full of vocal high school students, young adults and concerned parents, participated in an informative conversation.
Lehigh University rising sophomore Caroline Carlton, who graduated from PMHS in 2017, kicked off the conversation by sharing her personal experiences as a young woman navigating her way as a freshman on campus. “One in four is just a statistic until someone close to you, a good friend, is a victim,” said Carlton. The first month of school, before students develop friendships and look out for each other, is when young women are most vulnerable, said Carlton.
Judge Robert K. Holdman, who retired from the New York State Supreme Court in 2011 and was formerly Chief Trial Counsel in the Child Abuse/Sex Crimes Bureau at the Bronx District Attorney’s office, is now counsel to the Rilin Group and lectures at law schools, law enforcement agencies, and other schools and organizations. Holdman has interviewed hundreds of victims; his advice was sobering. “The majority of rapes [on college campuses] are between two parties who know each other,” said Holdman. He discussed the definition of legal consent, describing how rape often occurs when the victim is incapacitated and not capable of saying no. When Holdman delivers what he calls his “scared straight” lecture to the Fordham University football team about this issue, he shows players what an affirmative consent form looks like just to demonstrate that there should be no grey area when it comes to sex.
Catherine Van Bomel, a clinical social worker who as Coordinator of Victims’ Assistance and Educational Services at SUNY Purchase College provides support and clinical interventions to students who have experienced sexual assault, abusive relationships, and stalking said, “If you have to carry someone back to your dorm, they can’t consent.” Van Bomel drew parallels between victims in the documentary film and those she supports on campus.
Dr. Kathyrn Kehoe-Biggs, who has a Pelham-based private practice working with children and adults on issues such as bereavement, trauma, and divorce, discussed the bodily experience of trauma and the long-term effects of sexual assault. She also shared her thoughts on preventing sexual violence. “As a therapist that works with young people, I believe we need to empower them to talk about sex – so that they can talk about consent. We need to create a society where women feel comfortable vocalizing their desire for sex.”
We also need to continue to educate our college-bound kids about this issue. Since The Hunting Ground premiered in 2015, colleges are more responsive. Some have hired additional security officers or implemented bystander intervention programs. Many have adopted the Obama administration’s recommended policy requiring the accused party to testify in order to prove his innocence. There may be more support for victims, but as Judge Holdman said, “The whole system for dealing with this serious crime on campus is still so flawed.”
For more information about this issue visit seeactstop.org or rainn.org/articles/your-role-preventing-sexual-assault