Between the storms: an ongoing conversation about sexual assault

On the morning of March 22, 2012, campus was abuzz with hundreds of prospective freshmen and their parents attending “MSU Friday.” But while the high-school seniors took campus tours and mingled with students, Dean of Students Matt Caires was busy hanging posters around campus alerting students and visitors about the sexual assault that had occurred a block from campus the previous evening.

In the days following, Caires called the assault a “wake up call.” Although MSU’s campus is generally safe, he said, it is not immune from such incidents. “Bad things are bound to happen.”

In 2011, MSU Campus Police reported eight forcible sex offenses on campus, and through October 2012, the Bozeman Police Department had 24 reports of rape and 17 reported incidents of sexual assault. These rates are roughly consistent with national crime statistics (U.S. Census Bureau).

The topic of sexual assault has brought a lot of national attention to Montana in the past year. The University of Montana is facing an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice after its handling of sexual assaults committed by some members of its football team. In the weeks after the assault near MSU’s campus last March, the topic of sexual assault at MSU was also thrown into the local spotlight.

But even on college campuses, sexual assaults are not isolated incidents. National statistics report that 20 percent of women and 6 percent of men will be victims of attempted or completed sexual assault during their college years. Even so, sexual assault is the crime least often reported to law enforcement. Only 28 percent of sexual assaults are ever reported.

After the national attention brought to Montana by the UM scandal, Montana schools have largely reevaluated the way they handle sexual assaults on their campuses. In April, statewide college representatives came together for a sexual assault summit in Butte to discuss the topic and compare resources and strategies.

The event spurred discussion focused, in part, on how to change the culture that allows sexual assault to happen. At the event, Student Regent Joe Thiel said, “When it comes to making a cultural change, [students] are on the front line. It’s [students] having the courage to stand up, having the courage to say something, and having the courage to make a change. We’re the ones who have the biggest effect.”

According to MSU VOICE Center Coordinator Alanna Sherstad, another statewide sexual assault summit is planned for this fall to continue discussion on these topics.

In the past months, as the dust from the UM scandal settles, sexual assault on campus has fallen out of the public spotlight, yet it is a topic that remains relevant.

This multi-part series, “Between the storms: an ongoing conversation about sexual assault,” will be taking a comprehensive look at the topic of sexual assault in Montana and on MSU’s campus.

Over the following weeks, we will examine misleading common perceptions about sexual assault that stifle prevention and reactionary progress, explore the history and effectiveness of policies in Montana, and aim to grasp the prevalence and importance of this topic to MSU campus and culture.

The Exponent is committed to achieving as thorough a knowledge as possible of this issue. If you have information about MSU’s history in response to sexual assault, or if you or someone you know has experience with sexual assault and/or university policy please contact us at news@exponent.montana.edu.