Rape on college campuses has become a hot-button issue in recent years, earning the attention of the media and politicians. President Barack Obama and other politicians have spoken up about the issue. In one high-profile case last summer, two University of Miami football players were expelled after being accused of raping a heavily intoxicated 17-year-old female student in a campus dorm room.
On Tuesday, students and faculty from the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at the University of Miami staged an event, Canes Consent, at the university’s student center to raise awareness of sexual assault and press UM to do more to help victims. They passed out free pizza and cookies — and pamphlets on counseling and statistics about assault rates. The speakers included two female students who said they had been raped at the university.
One of them was Angela Cameron, a 21-year-old junior studying journalism and theater. Cameron said she was raped by a friend in her acting class, after a party at which she says she got drunk for the first time. When she first reported it to campus police, the officer told her it wasn’t rape because she knew the man, she says. Because it happened at the man’s apartment in South Miami, campus police referred her to South Miami police.
“Every resource I tried to use they referred me off campus,” Cameron said. “They said it was because we don’t have the resources to help you with that.”
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Her testimony prompted the attendees to start a petition asking that her assailant, whom university authorities suspended for one semester, be expelled.
Dr. Katharine Westaway and students in her Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies class organized Canes Consent. Westaway created the Consent campaign in 2013, after a day when two of her students told her they had been victims of sexual assault.
“I said there’s a real need here,” Westaway said. “We want to build a consensus that this is not OK and end this.”
The goals of Westaway and her students range from raising awareness about the seriousness of the issue and attitudes they say contribute to it — rape jokes are not OK — to pressing the administration to devote more resources to helping victims.
The university’s Sexual Assault Resource Team has a 24-hour hotline for reporting and guidance. But victims have to go off campus to get the forensic exam, called a rape kit, needed to gather evidence to prosecute assault cases. The number of counseling sessions victims can receive on campus is capped at 15, and they sometimes have to wait several weeks to be seen, says Westaway.
A University of Miami spokeswoman said Tuesday the center’s social worker tries to make sure a student is seen immediately.
Tony Lake, associate dean of students and judicial affairs, said the administration was working to make students aware of the issue and was trying to find out more about the problem and how to address it.
“We’ve done surveys,” Lake said. “We start at orientation talking about this and we talk about it all year long. Events like this are another opportunity to explain that if you come in, this will happen.”
Another woman, a 21-year-old senior with a dual pre-med and pre-law major, spoke to attendees about being raped by her boyfriend, after which she said university authorities took three months before they held a hearing on her case.
“He called me, threatened me,” said the woman, who did not want her name used. “He was stalking me. I was afraid to go to my apartment or on campus. The guy was a resident advisor, in charge of other students. After the hearing, they found him guilty. The next day I ran into him. I feel strongly about how they handled it.”
She said he was expelled.
Others said they didn’t think the assault situation was particularly severe at UM. Nadia Mercado, a 23-year-old nursing student and president of the Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, said she knew several women who had been assaulted, but that the situation had improved in the five years she’d been at UM.
“People get drunk and the next thing you know stuff happens,” Mercado said. “But the environment now is a lot better than it was.”
Brianna Hathaway, 21, who is student government president, didn’t think UM’s assault problem was worse than at other universities. But she also said the small number of documented cases, with just seven assaults reported to campus police last year, didn’t represent the depth of the problem.
Victims are often afraid to come forward, thinking they’ll be blamed or shamed. Cameron said police asked her whether she had ever had sex before.
The woman in the UM football player rape case, also a UM athlete, opted not to go to trial because she feared a legal ordeal and having her character attacked, according to the prosecutor on her case. The players — linebackers JaWand Blue and Alexander Figueroa — were immediately kicked off the team and expelled from the school and agreed to undergo sex-offender treatment classes and complete 100 hours of community service. If they complete the program for first-time offenders and stay trouble-free for nine months, prosecutors said they will drop the sexual battery charges against them.
Hathaway did not speak up when a fellow student at her Georgia high school assaulted her.
"I was afraid that people wouldn’t believe me," said Hathaway, who said she knew several UM students who’d been assaulted who did not report it.
“I don’t know if it was being afraid or just not wanting to go through it,” she said. "We need to come together and say we support anyone who wants to come out. We want to make sure people do realize there is a system to support them.”
Tahreem Hashmi, 21, a pre-med senior, said she had friends who had not come forward about sexual attacks.
“They don’t know what to do or say,’’ she said. “I tell them they should go to the police or the administration. It’s usually someone you know, and you hesitate to get them in trouble. Or they feel shame that they let this happen to them. They don’t know how to confront it.’’
UM police department crime prevention officer John Gulla, who gave a self-defense demonstration, said he knew the small number of reported cases on campus did not fully represent a problem he called “pervasive.’’
“We know we’re not an exception to the national epidemic,’’ Gulla said.
During the three-hour event, five other women approached Westaway to say they’d been assaulted.
“I hope that more survivors come forward,’’ Westaway said. “I hope there will be a sea change at the University of Miami.’’