BURLINGTON — It was a long time before Caroline DeCunzo could talk about her sexual assault. The University of Vermont junior was assaulted in high school, she said Wednesday, but still grapples with the experience.
DeCunzo, along with about 75 other students, marched across UVM’s campus Wednesday, chanting with mattresses hoisted over their heads as part of a demonstration about the impact of sexual violence. She believes the issue should be discussed openly and is too often mishandled or ignored by college officials.
“I think that it’s important for UVM to acknowledge that we do have a sexual assault problem,” DeCunzo said.
DeCunzo said she had a hard time finding the university’s sexual assault policy and was shuffled between departments on the phone when she tried to ask for help.
“It’s not a conversation that I think happens a lot at UVM, unfortunately,” DeCunzo said.
The demonstration was part of Carry That Weight Day, a national day of awareness on campuses across the country, in solidarity with Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, an alleged rape victim who has vowed to carry a mattress with her every day until her alleged rapist is no longer at the school.
The UVM students started their demonstration Wednesday in front of the Royall Tyler Theatre, then marched through the Davis Center to Bailey Howe Library, where they called for more awareness of sexual violence and a better response from universities.
The group then observed five minutes of silence to honor survivors of assault. During the silence, passersby joined in or snapped photos.
University crime statistics show the number of rapes reported by students at UVM rose from seven in 2011 to 15 in 2013. DeCunzo said the figures are likely higher, but many incidents go unreported because victims are afraid, or ashamed, to come forward.
Students on Wednesday cited a statistic that says one in five American women has been raped, from a 2014 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Professor Denise Youngblood, president of the faculty union, spoke during the demonstration about sexual violence and larger issues of gender inequality at UVM. Youngblood, a self-described victim of sexual violence, said the crime is unique in that victims are blamed.
“Rape is a crime, not a dirty secret,” she said.
UVM has adopted new reporting requirements for sexual violence and hired a new Title IX investigator, but should do more, Youngblood said, to make it OK to talk about sexual violence. (Title IX is a federal law that forbids gender discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal funding.)
Also marching was freshman Haylee Manktelow, who said she was sexually assaulted at a boarding school before she came to college. UVM gives first-year students opportunities to talk about sexual violence prevention, she said.
“(The school) is really giving us resources,” she said.
Junior Sam Ghazey said he felt it was his duty to support survivors.
“One of the biggest parties that should be educated on this is men,” he said.
Senior Casey Ann Short said she hopes Vermont can pass legislation similar to the California “yes means yes” law, which requires clear, affirmative consent from both parties before sex.
UVM has been working on preventing and addressing sexual violence for some time, said Annie Stevens, vice provost for student affairs at UVM, in an interview. Recent news reports and demonstrations have made student rape a prominent national issue.
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting in 2010 published an investigation that found more than 240 sexual assault reports to campus security at New England colleges resulted in few tough sanctions for perpetrators despite millions in federal funding being sent to those schools aimed at holding students accountable for those crimes.
A UVM senior pleaded not guilty this month to charges of sexual assault against another UVM senior.
In 2011, the federal government urged colleges and universities to designate a Title IX coordinator to monitor and assess sexual misconduct and gender inequality issues on campus. UVM designated a coordinator as well as two deputies and recently allocated money to hire a new investigator.
Students who feel they are victims of sexual violence can report either to police or the Title IX coordinator, Stevens said.
In 2013, UVM created a sexual misconduct sanctioning panel to hear cases of sexual misconduct involving students and it also employs a victim’s advocate and sexual misconduct advisers, according to a report to the UVM board of trustees issued this month.
“We feel like we’re in really good shape at the University of Vermont,” Stevens said.
The rise in the number of rapes is likely because of greater awareness about sexual violence now than in the past, Stevens said.
“While I think it’s still a very underreported issue on our campus, I think much of the increase that we’re seeing in those reports are because of the greater awareness of students, faculty and staff,” Stevens said.
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