How Students at Black Colleges Are Addressing Sexual Assault on Campus

Students at several prominent historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), have demanded that school administrators address sexual assault more vigorously. Last year, student protests at Morehouse College, Spelman College, Hampton University, and Howard University focused on inadequacies in the way sexual assault and rape cases are handled.

Two current students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and two alums join our roundtable discussion to explore what is particular about reporting and preventing dating violence and sexual assault at HBCUs. Campus rape is an issue across all colleges, and today we’re hearing some students at HBCU’s take on it.

Dishonor Roll

TRANSCRIPT

Guest Host Eryn Mathewson: College students around the country are entering a new school year. What awaits them are new classes, new students, and hopefully, new approaches to old problems. Some students at several prominent historically black colleges and universities or HBCUs as we call them, have asked school administrators to address sexual assault differently. Last year, student protests at Morehouse College, Spelman College, Hampton University, and Howard University aimed to highlight inadequacies in the way sexual assault and rape cases are handled.

We’re focusing on HBCUs because out of the nearly 5,000 colleges that exist in the US, just over 100 are categorized as historically black. Students at these schools whom are predominately black, tend to under report sexual violence and they’re often not included in national conversations about it. We’re interested in amplifying their voices and their particular take on the issue. With us today are a few current and former HBCU students who have a few things to say about the way sexual assault plays out at HBCUs and how to make campus safer for everyone. Let’s do some quick introductions.

Amos Jackson: I’m Amos Jackson the third. I’m a senior at Howard University. I’m the SJA president there and I’m a member of Alpha for Alpha fraternity incorporated.

Kyla Wright: And I’m Kyla Wright. I’m a senior as well, journalism major at Hampton University and I’m originally from Detroit, Michigan.

Evette Dionne: I’m Evette, I’m from New York. I’m on a book writing sabbatical in Denver right now and I went to Bennett College in North Carolina.

Welcome guys. I’m your host, Eryn Mathewson and I’m an alum of Howard University. You’re listening to Making Contact in collaboration with Bitch Media and Dishonor Roll.

So before we get into the nitty gritty, I’d like to hear from each of our guests about why you decided to attend a historically black college. And for anyone who’s not familiar, these are institutions that were established before 1964 with the purpose of educating black Americans when other institutions would not. Students of all races are welcome, but black culture is often celebrated to a high degree at these places. So Amos, let’s start with you. Why did you choose Howard?

Jackson: Okay. Funny enough, I had no intention of going to an HBCU. I actually came on an unofficial visit to Georgetown and my parents were like, “You need to go visit Howard.” My whole family went to HBCUs. And I was like, “No, I wanna be different. I wanna go to a top-tier institution. I don’t wanna go to an HBCU.” And then, funny enough, I didn’t get the ACT score for those institutions that were recruiting me and so I committed to this small division three school in Cleveland, Ohio. And ironically, one Sunday at church I met this guy so he invited me to this Sigma Pi Phi Boule chapter meeting. He set me up by bringing all of these prominent Howard alum that lived in Florida. Even at that meeting, the chair of the board, ironically who I would be hosting a protest against three years later, was there. I was like okay. I called my dad that day and I was like, “I’m going to Howard.”

Wright: Okay, so growing up I went to predominantly white elementary, middle schools. So I dealt with the racism at a very young age. So I knew going into high school … Well, when I was in the eighth grade, my brother graduated from high school. He went off to college, he went to FAMU. So I went on a black college tour with my church and fell in love with all the HBCUs from Tennessee State to Hampton and Spelman. Everywhere. So I knew by about the ninth or tenth grade that I wanted to go to an HBCU. I got scholarship money, fortunately, to go to Hampton. Hampton gave me the highest scholarship. It was a beautiful campus. They had a top-tier journalism program. And everything in between.

I knew I wanted to be surrounded by people who looked like me, who acted like me, and who had the same morals and values as me. And I didn’t want to succumb to racism for any longer, so I knew that HBCU was the perfect place for me where I knew I would fit in. I knew I would be accepted. And for the last four years I’ve felt exactly like that. So it was literally the best decision I’ve made. My children will be attending HBCUs, they don’t have a choice. And that … Yeah, that is it.

That’s funny. Evette, what about you?

Dionne: I was first introduced to HBCUs through a different world, pre Bill Cosby problems that we have now. And I knew very early on that I wanted to attend a historically black college or university. And so I encountered some struggles when I got to high school and ended up dropping out when I was 16. And HBCUs were the only institutions who were willing to accept someone who took the SAT but did not have a traditional high school diploma. And so I applied to three HBCUs. The one I decided initially to attend was the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. And I attended there for a year and then encountered some money troubles.

And so I was actually sitting at home, I had taken a semester off, watching CNN and I saw Bennett College’s former President, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, just talking about this school I had never heard of before. And she was just singing all of its praises. Like, if you’re a black girl who wants to turn into a black woman and be educated and celebrated, this is the school that you should go to. And I ended up applying that day and I was accepted probably six or seven weeks later and decided to transfer to Bennett, which is where I graduated from in 2012. And I’ll agree with both of the people who went before me, that it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.

I’m glad everybody enjoyed their experience ’cause we all know some people who did not enjoy their experiences at HBCUs.

Before we dive in to the way sexual assault impacts your campuses, I wanted to talk about the bigger context we all find ourselves in right now. I feel like we’re in this me too moment and I’m wondering how this has affected your conversations on campus. There’s a lot of progressive art and music coming out at the same time as some pretty misogynistic stuff. Like I still can’t get over that R. Kelly has “I Admit” out. But then I wonder if its countered by songs like “Nice for What” from Drake. So I’m just curious, how has that affected your conversations about sex and sexual assault?

Dionne: Well, Bitch Media is a feminist publication and so much of the work that I do with cultivating writers is getting them to tackle these kind of difficult issues. And what I found since, especially because we’re approaching the one year anniversary of me too, is that there are far more people who are willing to have these conversations and to have the publicly. And I think social media has played a big part in that in terms of being able to respond immediately to say R. Kelly’s terrible 19 minute song “I Admit.” Or being able to foster a conversation publicly in a way that they may not be able to do in their own families. Especially if they’re encountering pushback.

And so, I don’t know if me too is really the catalyst for that. I think it’s been happening prior to that, particularly among feminists online. But I think that we are shifting national consciousness about what sexual violence looks like, what sexual assault looks like, and the way that institutions work to protect people who are already powerful and how they turn out the powerless. And so I think the fact that we are even having this conversation right now about how HBCUs specifically handle sexual assault, signals that we’re in the middle of a sea change around this conversation.

Jackson: Right. And I agree. it’s just, it’s so sad that me too was started by a black woman, but it didn’t really garner support until a white woman had it-

Wright: And no one knew.

Jackson: And no one knew until a white woman said something about me too. So that’s even something that even goes into a deeper aspect of HBCUs. I think similar to the political engagements, civic engagement of black people, that stem from Donald Trump and people like him being elected into office and that whole Roy Moore situation, there was a silver lining in it because it also made people more aware that if a guy got elected President of the United States, it has to be happening at least down the street from you. And the same thing to where people went out in droves and voted and got involved civically. I think we’re gonna see a response to that too following me too and all of these prominent people that you used to look up to, and now you’re like, “Wow. How can I not condemn and really change the conversation?”

Yes and changing the conversation is something we’re trying to do right here. Let’s talk about the dating scene first, since according to the Center for Disease Control, just over 50 percent of female victims of rape reported being assaulted by an intimate partner and just 40 percent by an acquaintance.

I feel like you can’t talk about the dating scene without talking about sex, and decision making around having sex. Like, safe sex, choosing the right partner, making sure everything’s consensual, and everything’s 100, and I feel like at HBCs in particular, this conversation gets tied up into morality. ‘Cause I feel like a lot of the schools are kind of unofficially connected to or very openly celebrate various forms of Christianity.

Evette, what do you, when you were an undergrad, and I guess I should say, well I don’t want to speak for Evette, I was an undergrad a little bit over, about 13 years ago. Evette, what about you?

Dionne: Yeah, I finished undergrad 6 years ago. So it has been awhile. But I attended a same sex college, and so the dating was a little difficult unless you wanted to venture to another campus. So a lot of the dating was happening across campuses, or mostly Bennet girls were going to North Carolina A+T because our college didn’t allow men on campus, and when they did come on campus they were being harassed by security. They were not allowed to go into our dormitory rooms if you lived on campus, they had to stay in the parlor. And so, if you had a male visitor who wanted to come by, he would become a spectacle.

We’re a Baptist school, we go to chapel every Wednesday, you have to wear white, I mean they weren’t even allowing women to wear pants in chapel until the ’90’s. And so, so much of, especially if you are a student leader, or perceived as a student leader, so much of what they considered dirt needs to be done off campus, or out of the eye of the administration. So I can remember, I was probably a Junior, and I had taken on kind of all of these leadership roles on campus, like running our student magazine, and I went to the club with my friends, and you know just had a good time, drinking, all of that.

And when I came back to campus, our student services coordinator pulled me in her office and gave me a whole lecture about needing to be a student leader, and when people see you off campus your representation of the school, and so a lot of the relationships that I had when I was in college were very private. But I think on the flip side of that, I’m very fortunate that I never encountered sexual violence when I was in college, but had I, I don’t know if I would have been comfortable coming to that same student service coordinator and saying, hey, I’ve been assaulted, given that I was basically lambasted for having fun as a college student.

Amos, you said that things had changed at Howard, how is sex talked about among students and administrators now?

Jackson: Well at Howard it’s 7 to 1. Female to male. And so as a guy, it’s great. But it’s also very challenging. I’ve seen it change big time from my freshman year to now going into my senior year. We have a lot more panels, we have organizations that are strictly based on safe sex, like safe spaces, HU. Our campus does a lot of sexual assault stuff. A lot of the fraternities and sororities on campus are definitely tackling that, and even from a administrative standpoint, we’re actually launching this new campus safety program regarding sexual assault, dating violence, and interpersonal violence. It’s on every syllabus now.

And so it’s, we’re actually moving in a good direction towards making Howard University safe for all students. Student government is playing a big part in that as far as promoting new policies, we’re actually doing a program with EverFy, where students would have to take mandatory sexual assault prevention training, title 9 training, diversity and inclusion training, before every semester online.

[BREAK]

If you are just tuning-in, this is Making Contact, radioproject.org and the DisHonorRoll reporting project. You were just hearing the voice of Amos Jackson, a senior at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Before him was Evette Dionne of Bitch Media and an alum of Bennett College, in North Carolina, Next Up Kyla Wright who’s a senior at Hampton University in Virginia, So Kyla what’s going on at Hampton?

And Kyla, what’s going on at Hampton? How is it there?

Wright: So, Hampton is definitely going through it right now when it comes to the sexual assault. So as far as … Amos talked about at Howard and having sexual assault seminars every semester and having in all your syllabus. We’re definitely not there yet, and that’s definitely a direction that we’re headed to, but we’re not anywhere close as of right now. And, even, I’ve heard a lot of young women on campus talk about going to the health center, about having a sore throat or having a chronic headache or something, and they end up turning it around and asking them like, are you sexually active? You need to take a STD test.

And it has nothing to do with the fact that I have a headache, or the fact that my throat hurts, so why are you asking me about my sexual activity. And then that turns into judgment. And it’s very uncomfortable. And even when you answer the questions, the reactions, you can see the reactions in the nurse’s face if it’s like, oh, I’m not sexually active. They’re like, oh good, keep it that way. Or, yeah I’m sexually active, oh well, why? Like, it’s very weird. It’s very uncomfortable.

The only resource that we really have that students are semi comfortable with and just now becoming more comfortable with is the student counseling center which has a program called the pure advocates, which I’ll actually be the president of this upcoming school year. It’s a organization or it’s a program that specifically is geared toward sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, domestic violence, et cetera. And it’s that organization that everyone kind of wants to be a part of, or wants to talk to but at the same time wants to shy away from because it’s all the taboo topics everyone wants to keep quiet about as well.

So, we’re trying to make it more of a open discussion and an open dialogue ’cause it shouldn’t be something that’s kept quiet on campus, especially because it happens so often. And in my research I’ve come to find out that, in the average four year tenure 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted on a college campus.

Kyla, I’m glad to hear that you’re gonna lead the peer advocates and I’m glad that Hampton is kind of moving forward, slowly but surely. I’m wondering if you could actually share a little bit more about your experience and how you got to know all these services so well?

Wright: So, my freshmen year at Hampton, unfortunately I was a part of that statistic. So I was assaulted on campus by someone who I thought was my friend, someone who was a prominent figure on campus. Someone who I was very comfortable with. So at that time, I was extremely, I shut down from the world. Like I shut down from everyone, everything, I was not talking about it, I was not even admitting the fact that it happened, like I was just like, I don’t really know what it is but it’s not that. And then, after I finally started talking to my parents and started talking to really close friends and family members, and doing research, I start figuring out that obviously I wasn’t alone and it wasn’t just me.

So, I had to try to figure out in some way, shape or form how to be that voice, and how to come out about this situation because it was happening to other people, and obviously they weren’t speaking out about it either. And, this is when I began to, I didn’t report it until about four months after it happened, and then even after I did, so I started to learn the process and how it worked on campus as far as reporting it, and if you got a case or if you didn’t get a case. And how Hampton solved the situation or if they didn’t solve the situation, and all that.

And then my sophomore year, I created a platform called Operation SASH. SASH is an acronym for Sexual Assault Stops Here.

Thank you for sharing your story with us. I’m curious, and I’m gonna open this up to everybody else, but were you believed, when you first came forward? Do you feel like people believed you or did you feel like you had to prove something to the people asking you questions and the experience you had was real?

Wright: Yeah, no. No one believed me. Even after I finally came to terms with it, all my friends, I was in a group of about 8 friends that were like my main friends, we all stayed on the same haul. It was like, when I came out to my friends and told them what happened, it was like, did it? Really? Okay. Okay we’ll help you. Okay. And then, after it started to get real, it seemed like the more comfortable I got with it, the more uncomfortable they got with it. So I ended up losing all my friends freshmen year. They were like, no, I don’t really think this is how this is supposed to go, I don’t really know if this did happen to you, if you’re trying to get attention, or … what do you mean this isn’t the way to go?

I reported it to the University, I’m trying to get him kicked off campus, whatever. And everything I was trying to do to keep my support system strong, it backfired on me, honestly. So, when you report the incident to the title 9 office, or to HUPD, they have an investigation with you and the person you say was the assailant, and they decide whether or not you get a case. So I got a case, so I had to go in front of a board of administrators, and talk about what happened. He was there, he was in the room, I ended up finding out that wasn’t supposed to happen that way.

Jackson: He was in the room?

Wright: He wasn’t supposed to be in the same room as me. Yeah.

Jackson: That’s against title 9.

Wright: It was really weird.

Jackson: Oh no.

Wright: It was the most awkward thing ever. Yeah. So, that happened and it was like the administration were like, grilling me. They were just like, what did you have on, well why were you at his house, well why were you this way, why were you that-

Jackson: Oh, no.

Wright: And I’m like, what, wait, hold on, pause. Stop. So it was just … Wait, hold on, pause that. What? So, it was a very alone time in my life.

I’m wondering for Evette and Amos … So, it sounds like what I learned from Kyla is that she had to prove herself to her friends and to the administration, and I’m wondering at your campuses, did you find that the student body is supportive when they hear about sexual assault cases? And then I’m wondering if your friends or people you know who have experienced sexual assault if they have felt comfortable in the administration space and also the social space at campus?

Jackson: I can say of Howard a lot of women aren’t as inclined to report because they have friends or they know people that have reported and haven’t seen an output. Like my mentee one of the closest women to me on campus, that happened to her. So, when that happened to her I was the first person she called. I took her into Principal office.

She was afraid of reporting, and I was like, no, as a student employee of the university, as soon as you tell me, now I’m required to report it myself, so now I have to. I know that I may break mentee, mentor relationship trust here, but I have to. And I think it’ll serve you well with me doing so. And I hate the fact that it had to take somebody close for me to really, really, really put my hands to the plow to make it a priority for my administration and for other student leaders.

But again, I think that we’re moving in the right direction with that. Looking to hire more Title IX investigators because I think one of the things that really hurts HBCUs especially when it comes to issues like these is that the resources we have are very slim, so instead of trying to find creative ways we over-compensate and aren’t honest about the issues that are going on, on our campuses. Just because there’s creative ways to assist survivors and to discipline assailants.

What about you, Evette?

Dionne: Well, my college is a little complicated because we haven’t reported a sexual assault in nearly five years. Which, based on national statistics is inaccurate, and it’s impossible that there is no sexual assault that has happened on Bennett College’s campus in five years. But what that indicates to me is that we either don’t have the proper protocols in place for victims of sexual violence to come forward and feel as if they’ll be believed and that justice will be served; or these cases were being swept under the rug.

And there is no evidence either way, but I can recall especially when I was at the beginning of my undergraduate career there were always whispers and rumors about students who had been sexually violated. But it was always happening among student groups or among groups of friends. It was never happening on an administrative level. We were never having town hall meetings about sexual violence.

So, often … I can recall one specific student in particular who said that she had been raped, and the next semester she didn’t come back, and we never saw her again. So much of the conversation around sexual assault and rape and how colleges handle it does, as Amos said, has to do with resources.

So, Bennett is a school with 500 students. They rely mostly on student tuition to fund the institution. 90% of the time we are either facing financial probation or we’re on financial probation. So, when it comes to the strategic way that they allocate resources, it’s as if they don’t see curbing sexual assault and making sure that those who have been assaulted have the proper resources as a institutional priority.

We’ve kind of discussed that sexual assault goes under-reported. Do you think that has anything to do with the fact that: A, black people are already over-represented in the prison system and the jail, and you’re not trying to add to that and be … There’s this “family”, quote, unquote culture at HBCUs, and so it feels bad to tell on your brother or your sister. Do you think that’s part of what goes on?

Dionne: Yes, absolutely. I think reputation for HBCUs is everything, primarily because they are underfunded. And so, the things that administrations choose to prioritize and focus on are designed to increase enrollment. One of my professors always says that most HBCUs run like a black church, and that is very much the case at Bennett.
They approach is as, we put on a united front even if we have inner turmoil. And so, you’re never supposed to speak badly of the school; you don’t speak badly of other students. At Bennett we call each other sisters. If sexual assault is happening, and based on national statistics it probably is, why they are not reporting it.

Jackson: Yeah, I think that also plays into regional placement of institutions as well. I know a lot of the students that we attract to go to Howard are coming from large cities and a lot of progressive cities especially on the things, and so, we’ve actually seen an increase in reporting over the last couple of years, which is a double-edged sword because you’re like, we’re glad people are reporting, but we’re also sad that people have to report something.
And so, it’s one of those things to where, even at Howard you still have that aspect of keeping it in-house and what happens at home stays at home, and we don’t want to affect this black man’s future, this black woman’s future. But they affected yours, and so, we got to understand that: no, we don’t need to have these.

And I really think, even before you even reach the institution because a lot of the times, with our students, we’ve surveyed on campus; it’s the first time they’ve openly talked about sex with an adult older than them, an older person was in college.

Um, okay, guys. For my last question I just wanted to hear from each of you one thing, just one, that you’re really hopeful that this will help change things, bring about more change on campus. Like, if it’s a policy, if it’s a conversation, whatever it is.

Dionne: The one thing that I hope changes moving forward is that … I would just like Bennett to have one town hall, every school have one town hall, every HBCU have one town hall that allows students to voice how they feel, particularly around issues that are vital and that must stop. And until that happens, until students voices are heard or valued or respected, I think these issues will continue to happen with either the administration not knowing or not caring or not being invested in making sure that the students are safe.

Wright: I would definitely say the dialogue because when the town hall meeting happened, everyone was outraged, and everyone was upset, and everyone had something to say as far as students. And now, it’s died down, and no one’s talking about it anymore, and that’s that. So, I don’t want it to be just a temporary upset, a temporary conversation. This needs to be ongoing until something actually happens.

Jackson: I would love to see men on our campus just listen. Men on our campus listen, understand and seek information on how they can be an ally to women on our campus. I would love to see that.

Good point. I would add that generally, listening, sitting, and acting upon comfortable and uncomfortable truths are a key part of making campuses safer.

Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have, and I just wanted to thank all of you so much. Kyla Wright from Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia; Amos Jackson, also a senior but at Howard University in Washington, DC, where I’m also an Alum; and Evette Dionne, editor in chief of Bitch Media, and alumna of Bennett College and the co-producer of this panel.

Before we close out the show, I want to mention that we reached out to Howard, Hampton and Bennett to get their responses to the comments made by Amos, Kyla and Evette. Listeners can see the full statements on our website, but I’ll summarize them here:

Hampton University outlined its policies and initiatives around sexual assault, and ended with quote:

“Once a complaint is made, Hampton University does not allow an alleged victim and perpetrator to be questioned together except during a sexual misconduct and discrimination hearing, unless otherwise requested. They added that quote “by federal law Hampton University cannot discuss the specifics of any complaint or case but it is important to note that Hampton University is concerned about the dignity of individuals and has had a sexual assault policy in place long before the federal mandate.”

The statement from Howard University highlighted various resources available to students and programs it has implemented to prevent sexual assault, promote student awareness of Title IX, and support survivors of sexual assault.

Lastly, Bennett College shared a statement about the programs there, emphasizing that the school’s resources to promote sexaul asssault awareness and support, increased in 2013. In response to whether the school under-reported incidents of sexual assault, the statement said quote, “Allegations that Bennett College has not reported any sexual assaults in the past five years are inaccurate. Reports on students who seek assistance through Counseling Services will not be reflected in public reports issued by the Clery Act.”

To hear the entire, unedited, discussion go to radioproject.org. Thanks for tuning in to Making Contact and our special round table episode in the Dishonor Roll Reporting Collaborative. Thanks, especially, to Bitch Media’s Evette Dionne and Andi Zeisler for their editorial input. Thanks to Jo Ellen Kaiser and The Media Consortium for a mini-grant for our DisHonorRoll participation. Special thanks for recording facilities at the studios of WPFW in DC, WDET in Denver, ESPN in New York, KGNU in Denver, and recordists, Bre’Anna Tinsley, Sam Beaubien, Dave Ashton, Tim Russo, Robin Smith and Katea Stitt. Thanks to Climbing Poetree for the opening poem and for the music by Jahzzar and Scanglobe. I’m Eryn Mathewson in New York for Making Contact. www.radioproject.org.