MIT Taking Steps to Address Campus Sexual Assaults

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A few months after a former student wrote a public account of being raped at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, school officials have announced steps they are taking to prevent sexual assaults on campus.

In a letter to students, faculty, and staff on Tuesday, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart outlined several initiatives the university is implementing to address the issue of sexual assaults and misconduct.

Barnhart said in her letter that the university will create education programs for first-year graduate students, first-year undergraduates, and all new staff, post-doctorate students, and faculty. The education programs include an online training course and a training program during orientation that will cover campus policies and procedures, bystander intervention, and explore issues of consent, communication, sexual harassment, interpersonal violence, and healthy sexuality.

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In February, MIT President L. Rafael Reif asked Barnhart to assess the issue of sexual assaults on campus and to determine steps the university needs to take to combat the problem. The move was in response to an anonymous column written by an alumna who wrote in the student newspaper, The Tech, about being raped when she was at MIT.

In the column, she described being raped by an older, higher-ranked colleague in her research group when she was a junior, and how due to fear, confusion, and depression she did not formally report the incident for more than a year. After she reported the assault, she said that officials at MIT were supportive, but a prosecutor she met with was unsupportive.

The column shed light on the issue of sexual assault at MIT, and at that time, Reif said the school would use that instance to improve and expand their community efforts.

In her letter sent this week, Barnhart said she would spend the summer analyzing data from an online survey to gain more information on the prevalence of sexual assaults as well as “attitudes, bystander actions, barriers to reporting and the effectiveness of MIT’s existing resources.”

Other steps include reviewing MIT’s current policies and procedures, developing ongoing training for faculty and staff, and increasing awareness about resources and options for those who experience sexual assault.

Barnhart also said she will continue a “listening tour” to gather more feedback. From her recent talks with students, faculty, and staff, Barnhart has said she has identified some major areas of concern among the campus community. She said students want clear answers on what constitutes sexual assault and want strategies for preventing assaults. She also said students are not clear about their rights and options for advice or support. Barnhart also noted the “complex social and psychological dynamics” that discourage people from reporting sexual assaults, as well as the need to teach students and faculty how to respond to these cases, since victims often turn to a trusted friend or faculty member for help.

The issue of sexual assaults on college campuses has recently been a focal point across the country. On May 1, the US Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges and universities under federal investigation for their handling of sexual assaults. The list includes six Massachusetts schools—Harvard College, Boston University, Amherst College, Harvard University Law School, Emerson College, and University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Earlier this month, Amherst College banned students from joining sororities and fraternities based off of a recommendation from the school’s Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee. The recommendation was part of a larger report, which noted that sexual assaults couldn’t be pinned on Greek organizations or other groups, but said that the college needed to “identify structures and patterns of collective behavior that facilitate sexual misconduct and discourage reporting” and that the underground nature of the fraternities and sororities hindered officials from “enforcing appropriate expectations of behavior.”

For MIT, Barnhart also mentioned the need to address the overall campus community by encouraging student organizations, student living groups, and sports teams to develop their own sexual assault prevention initiatives.

(H/T Boston Magazine)