Throughout the year, Wendy Ordóñez teaches Florida International University students about sexual assault and consent.
As the coordinator of outreach and educational media for the Victim Empowerment Program, she hands out bright red pamphlets with catchy phrases — “I [mustache illustration] for consent” is one of them — and graphics to teach students about the risks of sexual assault. That mustache means “must ask.”
But for the first few weeks of the fall semester, she focuses on special activities to coincide what some experts have dubbed the “red zone.” It’s that time of year where college students have the highest risk of experiencing sexual assault.
“For college students, it’s a time when students have more freedom, they’re away from parents, they’re going to more parties,” Ordóñez said. “That’s when they’re more vulnerable.”
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Ordóñez said she started the programming about five years ago to supplement annual campaigns after she saw the term used in research done by Middlebury College in Vermont. Researchers used the term to explain an increase in sexual assaults, particularly among freshmen women, from the first day of school to Thanksgiving break. Since then, she said, several national studies have used the phrase or identified an increase in attacks during that time period.
In a 2015 campus climate survey from the Association of American Universities, researchers found 16.9 percent of women reported assault during their freshman year, a percentage that steadily declined to 11.1 percent for senior women. And in another 2015 study surveying collegiate victims of sexual assault, 5.7 percent of participants reported sexual violence within September and October, the first two months of the academic year.
Part of the problem is the misconception that the majority of sexual assaults are committed by strangers when in fact, most victims know their attacker, said Laura Palumbo, a spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Three out of every four assaults are committed by an acquaintance or friend, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
“I think it can be difficult for students to realize as they’re making new friendships and relationships that people who they are learning to trust could be someone who hunts them,” Palumbo said.
She said as part of helping with adjustment to campus and new-found independence, it’s important for colleges to educate students about the red zone and sexual assault in general.
“A lot of campuses see this as a time where they can play a positive role in educating students on how to prevent sexual assault,” Palumbo said.
And that’s why Ordóñez and her staff — known as peer educators — will have additional activities to educate students about the risks during the red zone. It means more information tables on campus and “red zone elevators,” where staff will ride in library elevators, ask the riders questions about sexual assault and consent and offer prizes for correct answers.
It’s an informal way to raise awareness.
“We don’t want people to be scared,” she said. “We want them to learn.”
Dr. Audrey Cleary, a staff psychologist at the University of Miami counseling center, said while she wasn’t familiar with the specific term “red zone,” the concept is often discussed.
“It makes sense,” she said. “It intuitively makes sense that there would be greater risk during that time.”
Rather than specific programming during the fall semester, Cleary said counseling center staff work to produce more general campaigns throughout the year to bring attention to resources available on campus and educate students about sexual assault.
As one of the coordinators of the Sexual Assault Resource Team hotline, an initiative that gives students an opportunity to talk about an assault attack anonymously, she said it’s important for the network to maintain a presence on campus at resource fairs and with volunteers handing out pens and brochures.
“That’s so students — hopefully they never have to call us — can remember that,” Cleary said.
The most important thing is for students to understand the options available, from reporting the crime to the police to beginning the healing process.
“Understanding the resources is key for us to help, to let the survivor know what resources exist and let them know what to do,” she said.
As Ordóñez begins sharing her campaign this fall, she hopes to bring both education and empowerment to both new and returning FIU students.
“Knowledge is power,” Ordóñez said. “If you don’t know anything, you’re not going to do anything.”