FSU administrators continue efforts to reduce sexual misconduct on campus

Ferris State University administrators have been working to make campus a safer place from sexual misconduct. One of the many methods administrators are using is increasing education for students, staff and faculty through different events. (Pioneer photos/Taylor Fussman)

By Taylor Fussman and Meghan Gunther-Haas, Pioneer Staff Writers

BIG RAPIDS — Sexual assault can happen anywhere, including on college and university campuses across the nation. In the United States, approximately one in every five women and one in 20 men are victimized during their time living on or near campus, according to a Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation study.

While the number of assaults reported is generally lower at Ferris State University, campus administration and a team of staff and faculty have been hard at work making campus a safe place for students.

In recent years, campuses like FSU have been taking a closer look at themselves. In Big Rapids and Grand Rapids, this was done by encouraging FSU students to fill out a survey as part of a campus-wide Sexual Misconduct Task Force Report.

Through the survey, administrators determined approximately one in five female students on campus have experienced unwanted sexual situations, one in three have experienced stalking and one in four have experienced relationship abuse.

While the survey has been an important tool for administrators to gauge the student experience on campus, it is only one of several steps the university has recently taken toward reducing sexual misconduct.

FSU President David Eisler explained one of the most notable changes was the creation of a Title IX office on campus to handle cases of gender and sex discrimination and sexual misconduct, among other matters.

He said this office was created after a guidance letter was released by the U.S. Department of Education under the Obama administration in 2011, which prompted the university to complete its first internal review.

“The guidance placed a lot more responsibility on us and it changed the standard of evidence for campus sexual assault cases,” Eisler said.

He explained from this first review of policies, which was completed in 2014, the Title IX office was implemented to serve as an important reporting source for students, staff and faculty. New education and training tools also were created based on information provided by the report.

Examples of these tools are “Step UP,” a bystander intervention program that educates students to be proactive in helping others; “Campus Needs You,” a resource for people who want to learn more about rape culture and the importance of consent, as well as a resource for survivors of sexual assault; and information distribution both in-person and online.

Sexual Misconduct Task Force Report

Although the 2014 review helped administrators improve policies and practices at FSU, a second internal review was completed by the Sexual Misconduct Task Force earlier this year to discover methods for maintaining a safe campus environment.

An emergency call box just outside the University Center offers students an opportunity to quickly contact the FSU Department of Public Safety if the need should arise.

 

This review identified both gaps and best practices in the university’s policies.

Jeanine Ward-Roof, vice president for student affairs and task force chair, explained the review revealed many of the state requirements for reporting and education were being met, but there were a few areas on which the university could improve.

“The review really was a way for us to hold a mirror to ourselves, see how we are doing and look at the gaps and figure out what to do next and how to fix them,” she said.

The gaps identified by the internal review included: the Annual Security Report lacked a definition of consent, resources for complainants were student focused and not all relevant for non-students and training for those responsible for Title IX investigating was not consistent nor well-documented, among others.

Dean of Student Life and Title IX Work Group Chair Joy Pufhal said the report was positive overall, but the university is now working to remedy all identified gaps.

“I was pleased after we went through this process to have it verified that we did very strong as it relates to what we are required to do,” she said. “It left us with some very clear things for us to focus on over this academic year.”

Pufhal added there also were several best practice suggestions offered for the university to consider implementing to improve reporting and education for students and non-students, including creating poster campaigns to notify the campus community of responsibilities to respond to complaints; establish annual training and documentation processes for the Title IX coordinator, deputy coordinators and law enforcement; and create a frequency in which FSU policies and procedures will be reviewed.

“Our student body changes at least every semester, so there is always more we could be doing to educate our students around these issues and to work to prevent these things from happening. Many of the best practices are to do more,” Pufhal said.

The 2018 Campus Climate Survey was one way the task force tried to go beyond the basic requirements.

Eisler said this was the second time the survey was distributed to students, with the first in 2016, and the number of responses increased significantly this year.

He added the survey helps raise awareness of sexual misconduct on campus, which hopefully will encourage students, staff and faculty to report incidences.

“If you do what you want to do with (the training and education), you’re going to raise the number of instances reported because students are going to feel empowered to report,” Eisler said. “We want students to report and we want to learn from that.”

Reporting sexual misconduct on campus

Students, staff and faculty at FSU have several options for reporting and receiving support on campus and in the community, but Pufhal said one of the first places someone should go to in order to report sexual misconduct would be the Title IX office.

However, she added people may choose to disclose to someone close to them or to a member of the counseling department — as they are confidential employees on campus — before choosing to go to the Title IX office for support or help reporting the incidence.

Pufhal explained if the individual being accused of sexual misconduct by the reporting party is an FSU student or staff member, there would be an adjudication process to investigate the situation. This process would involve interviewing witnesses, the reporting party and the accused in order to determine the facts, and the investigation report would ultimately go to the director of equal opportunity on campus.

After continuing the investigation process and allowing the accused a chance to challenge the evidence against them, a finding of responsible or not responsible is made.

FSU students, faculty and staff are encouraged to speak out if they witness sexual misconduct on campus as part of the “Step UP” program implemented in light of a recently released report.

If the accused is found to be responsible for the actions of sexual misconduct, sanctions would be imposed and an appeals process would be available to the accused, Pufhal said.

 

She added while this is the format for adjudication processes within FSU, the reporting party also may choose to pursue charges through outside law enforcement.

“The Title IX coordinator can explain all of that, and then the student can decide if they want to go through the student conduct process, do they want to go through law enforcement, do they just want support or do they want all of the above,” Ward-Roof said.

Pufhal noted approximately half of the disclosures the Title IX office receives results in a formal investigation. For the last year, July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018, the Title IX office received 110 disclosures, a number which has increased each year since the office started, Pufhal said.

“This is what you want to see,” she said. “We really believe we have a healthy reporting climate here and our numbers support that.”

To reach more students, the FSU Title IX office recently received assault prevention grants, which will be used toward creating a coalition of peer educators. This coalition of 10 FSU students will be on-hand to assist both the women and the men on campus who have dealt with misconduct.

As well as reporting to the Title IX office, or receiving support from the coalition of peer educators, there are other outlets for students, including the FSU Department of Public Safety, Spectrum Health hospitals and Women’s Information Services Inc. (WISE).

DPS and WISE officials agree early reporting is key in sexual misconduct cases, as more evidence can be obtained if the victim would like to press charges at some point.

“Sometimes, I kind of wonder if, especially as a college student, they are just nervous or they don’t want to reach out because they just want it to go away, they just want to focus on school. I think they get scared about what’s going to happen if they tell someone.” said Danae Langan, WISE sexual assault advocate.

“It’s their choice if they want to report or not report and we are going to help them regardless. They choose not to report and we are still going to offer support services and set them up with resources to work through it.”

While the victim is in charge of whether they would like to file a report or not, Langan encourages anyone who has been assaulted to visit the hospital, where they can work through a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program kit, a free service offered to survivors.

A SANE kit collects evidence which can be used if the victim would like to press charges at some point. Langan said the most evidence can generally be collected in the first five days after the incident. Victims decide how much of the kit they would like completed, and have up to 18 months to determine if they would like to press charges or not. Victims are again asked if they would like to press charges at any point and if they decline, the evidence can be destroyed.

Langan said victims who visit the hospital within the first 72 hours of an assault also can be given different preventative medicines against some sexually transmitted infections.

Students reporting, or using a support person to report, an assault with FSU DPS also may be encouraged to complete a SANE kit, which could be the starting point in pressing criminal charges, if the victim so chooses. Officers also may offer information about WISE, the hospital or Birkam Health Center counseling services on campus.

“If you have been impacted by a sexual assault, you will be treated with respect, courtesy, sensitivity and professionalism at all times,” the FSU DPS page states. “You will not be accused, blamed or judged for the incident that occurred. Remember, sexual assaults are about control and power and your loss of that control. Your investigation will be taken seriously regardless of your gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or the sexual orientation or gender of the suspect(s).”

Langan agreed, noting each organization only wants the best for the students and is willing to offer their services.

Victims wanting to report an assault to FSU DPS may do so by calling (231) 592-5000. A support person also may call to report an assault. The Title IX offices can be reached at (231) 592-5916.

“As a university, we are committed to this work,” Eisler said. “We’re working hard to educate our students. We appreciate the help of our community in making this a safe place. We’re going to continue to do our absolute best.”

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