April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but Ohio University has been spreading awareness about sexual assault on its campus for the entire 2019-20 school year.

Sexual assault remains a concern on college campuses. According to the Office of Women’s Health, one in five women in college experience sexual assault.

At OU, the seriousness of the problem became apparent during the 2018-19 school year. Within the Fall Semester of 2018, Athens NEWS reported the Athens and OU police departments had received 28 reports of sexual assault crimes.

The large number of sexual assault crimes led Ohio University to be proactive heading into the 2019-20 school year.

“The education initiative that we took the beginning of this fall, with our coffee sleeve and sticker campaign, we put out almost 20,000 pieces for people to see, to kind of help educate and to encourage,” John Stabler, an Ohio University Police Department officer, said.

Stabler serves as an instructor for Rape Aggression Defense Training, or RAD, offered by OUPD. The RAD program is a course for women of the Ohio University community that teaches risk reduction and basic self-defense training.

“We saw the benefit of being able to empower our students and to give them some opportunities to look at how self-defense can come into play but also the important aspects of it,” Stabler said. “Research has told us that folks who perceive themselves as confident and who present themselves as confident are less likely to have someone try to take advantage of them.”

In addition to RAD training, students have access to OU’s Survivor Advocacy Program. The program works as a resource by providing confidential support for student survivors of sexual assault, sexual harassment, dating/domestic violence and stalking. 

Survivor Advocacy Program Director Kimberly Castor feels the increase in sexual assault crimes reported does not necessarily mean there are more sexual assaults happening, but rather, more students are reporting sexual assaults that happen to them.

“I think that (the rise in reports) is partly because we're talking about it so openly, and we're providing resources that is going to lead to more people finding their way to those resources and making reports, but I don't think it's necessarily because situations are happening more,” Castor said.

Stabler feels the increase in sexual assault crimes reported should be something that the university is proud of.

“Reporting numbers tend to be above the national average because we've been able to create an environment where students feel safe in making those reports,” Stabler said. “It makes me proud of our department and our university.” 

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, causing students to return home early and finish the remaining semester remotely, the university has begun taking different approaches to ensure students still receive support. 

The Survivor Advocacy Program is offering its services virtually. Castor recognizes that students may be going home to unhealthy situations. 

“Students are home with their family, and maybe they don't want to have these conversations when their parents are the room over or maybe their abuser is in the same house,” Castor said. “That's a barrier for some of our clients and their advocate in finding a way to continue meeting. We are also talking about setting appropriate boundaries and how to maintain those during this time. It can be really challenging when you are thrown back into a situation not expecting it.” 

Annually, the OU Women’s Center and Student Senate fund a Take Back the Night, or TBTN, march. The Survivor Advocacy Program serves as one of the sponsors for the event. TBTN is as an event for the campus and community to come together to support survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. 

The event was set to take place this year April 2. For the university, an obvious response would be to cancel it, but Castor thought that would not be the right thing to do. 

“We're still here, we're still providing services for survivors and April is still Sexual Assault Awareness Month,” Castor said. “Sexual assault is still happening, throughout the world, no matter what kind of pandemic we are experiencing.”

The walk was held virtually on Twitter. Participants could share their support by tweeting #SurvivorsUniteTBTN.  

TBTN received an exemption from mandated reporting in order to allow full-campus participation by all members of the community. This means disclosures of sexual misconduct during the event were not considered notice to Ohio University. 

Citizens of the campus community and the students of past and present participated in the event on Twitter. 

One of those students was Amanda Hobson. Hobson was an undergraduate student from 1997 to 2001 and then completed her master’s degree from 2001 to 2005 and is now a currently enrolled doctoral student at OU. 

“So proud of my alma mater @ohiou for creating a virtual Take Back the Night,” Hobson tweeted during the event. “22 years ago, I attended my first TBTN, in my first year at OU. As a survivor, it was the first time I felt the power of uniting with others to say no more gender or sexual violence.”

Hobson reflected on the profound impact TBTN had on her life and the importance of still holding the event during the current circumstances. 

“To hear other people say ‘I believe you, I support you, I care about you’ as a survivor and just being able to be around people who want to stop sexual violence as much as I do and having people around me that supported and believed me was incredibly impactful. That changed the trajectory of my career and of my life in lots of ways,” Hobson said. 

Stabler hopes to continue to educate students on the stigmas surrounding sexual assault and support survivors. 

“I'm going to go out at full force this fall and try to do everything we can and try to get people to talk about it,” Stabler said. “We're going to work with Survivor Advocacy and figure out other ways that get people to talk or at least to bring the subject up because we want to continue to educate and make people feel comfortable being able to talk to folks.”

OU student survivors of sexual assault can contact the Survivor Advocacy Program on its 24/7 hotline at 740-597-7233.