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Last week, a 19-year-old female student was sexually assaulted on Montgomery College‘s Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus. The hour-long assault occurred in a women’s restroom inside the campus performing arts center.
Following the assault, Montgomery College rolled out a comprehensive administrative response across its three campuses. The Takoma Park campus immediately went into a two-hour lock-down. Campus police reviewed video surveillance of the performing arts center, where they identified the man who was later charged in the attack—-a former Montgomery College student and one-time student tutor. Administrators reached out to faculty and staff to help facilitate conversations with students. The school sent out multiple campus-wide messages alerting students to the university’s response, reminding them of campus counseling services, and inviting comments from students.
But let’s focus for a minute on one Montgomery College administrator’s public reaction to the attack. Two days after the assault, Dr. Clemmie Solomon, Takoma Park/ Silver Spring Dean of Student Development, sent a campus-wide e-mail reminding students of their responsibility to take charge of their own safety on campus.
The e-mail read:
On Tuesday, January 26, 2010, one of our Takoma Park/ Silver Spring students was sexually assaulted in the bathroom of the Performing Arts Center on the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus. The suspect was apprehended by the Montgomery County Police Department a few hours later. Please keep the victim of this heinous crime in your thoughts and prayers.
This unfortunate event reminds us all of the importance of remaining vigilant when it comes to safety. Accordingly, I seek your support in efforts to promote a safe and secure environment. Safety is everyone’s business and it requires each of us to play a part. I want to share steps that each of us can take to try and minimize risk, but remember that some of the best security measures are those you create for yourself. Make them part of your daily routine.
Solomon’s tips included:
* Keep an eye out for anyone who is loitering or hanging around campus.
* Be aware of your surroundings. For example: As you walk to your car check to see if someone is around or near your car as you walk up to it; have your keys ready.
* Get into your vehicle quickly and confidently.
* Travel in groups, especially after dark.
When Montgomery College student Rebecca Levy received Solomon’s e-mail, she was perplexed by these vague new security measures. After all, the campus rape victim had been assaulted in the middle of the day, in an on-campus facility where any student should have a reasonable expectation of safety. How could entering her car with confidence have prevented her being targeted in a women’s bathroom? How could walking in groups at night have prevented this afternoon assault? And how could noting campus loiterers have singled out a potential rapist on a college campus teeming with “loitering” students?
Levy fired off an e-mail to Solomon. “The onus is not on women to prevent being raped, but your e-mail suggests otherwise,” she wrote. “Your common-sense safety recommendations are an insult not only to the survivor of Tuesday’s assault but all women and all survivors, who are generally only guilty of such crimes against safety as daring to use a women’s restroom at the college we pay to attend.” Levy, who informed Solomon that she has “several years of experience doing workshops on this very topic at schools, conferences, and women’s groups,” then offered to share her war chest of local sexual assault resources with the dean. “Rape is widely accepted as being a hate crime, and I wish the school would treat it as such,” she concluded.
Solomon wrote back:
Thank you for your email regarding the assault on the Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus. Your feedback is appreciated.
The safety recommendations outlined in my memorandum to Montgomery College students were designed to provide general safety tips for our college community. These recommendations are widely accepted as good crime prevention measures for students on college campuses.
Montgomery College is continuing its efforts to make the college a safe and secure learning environment.
So Levy stepped up her criticisms of Solomon’s original missive:
Publicly responding to a rape with general safety recommendations ignores the status of rape as a hate crime. It also is victim-blaming, because it suggests that by complying with any of the recommendations (which vary in uselessness from getting into a car “confidently” to being wary of people “loitering” on campus which is practically the school sport) one can avoid being raped. I am not satisfied with your response and maintain that it is an insult to women and all survivors of sexual assault. That is unacceptable.
Questions I would like to ask Dean Solomon: How will entering my car with confidence prevent me from being raped in my school’s women’s bathroom? Are women who urinate on campus failing to take responsibility for the entire campus’s safety? Do you ever walk alone at night on campus? How do you think the victim of last week’s crime might grade the effectiveness of your general safety tips?
Unfortunately, Solomon didn’t respond directly to my request for comment (or to Levy’s last e-mail). Montgomery College Associate Communications Director Elizabeth S. Homan did call to say that Solomon’s e-mail was written in response to student demand for safety advice in the wake of the assault. Homan also noted that, in addition to its various immediate responses to the assault, Montgomery College is currently planning additional campus programming aimed at identifying and dealing with the problem of sexual assault.
The question remains, though: Was Solomon’s general safety advice an appropriate component of a school’s response to a campus sexual assault? For a professional opinion, I turned to Sarah Martino, communications coordinator for campus sexual assault watchdog SAFER Campus. “It is definitely not a surprising response, but it is not an appropriate one either,” says Martino. “A lot of schools offer really, really general safety information in terms of how to keep yourself safe from a ‘predator,’ but they’re really not addressing the fact that if you’re assaulted on campus, the perpetrator is likely a peer . . . and campus rape generally does happen in places where you’re supposed to feel safe—-in a dorm room or in this case, a campus academic building.”
Martino says that staging community conversations surrounding sexual assault—-like the one Homan notes are in the works—-can have an extremely positive effect on a campus reeling from a high-profile sexual assault. Telling students to always watch their back while on campus? Not so much. “It’s incredibly harmful to act as if students are doing something wrong by just walking around,” Martino says. “That’s really disheartening, and I wish we didn’t hear it more often.”