College campuses can look bucolic — but it’s important for parents to ask probing questions about what goes on behind the surface, too. (Photo: Getty Images)
Sure, it’s important to ask questions about class sizes and financial aid and dorm rooms during each campus tour you take with your teen. But there’s also a question that no one really wants to ask or answer: “How does this school handle the issue of sexual assaults on campus?” And that might actually be the most vital one of all.
“It’s important that parents ask schools, because it sends the message that parents take this very, very seriously,” says Allison Tombros Korman, executive director of Culture of Respect, a nonprofit organization that aims to support schools, students, and parents in the effort to eliminate rape and sexual assault from campuses. “It’s important for schools to hear that — and in turn for schools to send the message to parents that they are doing everything in their power to ensure their children’s safety.”
That safety is definitely something that could cause some angst, considering statistics showing that one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college — most often in her freshman or sophomore year, according to one study. In up to 80 percent of cases, notes “Not Alone,” a report from the recently created White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, the young woman knows her attacker, either as an acquaintance, classmate, or boyfriend. “Many are survivors of what’s called ‘incapacitated assault’: they are sexually abused while drugged, drunk, passed out, or otherwise incapacitated,” the report adds. “And although fewer and harder to gauge, college men, too, are victimized.”
Tombros Korman credits the Task Force, created in 2014, as being just one positive sign of the country evolving on this topic. “I think the national conversation itself is encouraging,” she says, also lauding recent documentary films “It Happened Here” and “The Hunting Ground,” both of which examine cases of campus sexual assaults and the responses of college administrations (including victim blaming), and which screen regularly at schools around the country.
“It’s critically important for schools to be part of the solutions, and for students to know that sexual assault is something they can possibly encounter,” Tombros Korman says. “We put a huge premium on transparency around this issue, so we encourage schools to be forthcoming about their sexual assault policies. No school is immune to this. The question is just how committed are they to keeping their campus as safe as possible?”
Lori Bongiorno, a Brooklyn mother of two (and a Yahoo employee) who has so far visited about a dozen East Coast liberal-arts colleges with her 17-year-old daughter, says that seeing “The Hunting Ground” pushed her to make such questions a priority.
“We initially were pretty skittish about bringing it up,” she admits. But after attending a screening and talk back of the documentary, and being encouraged by producer Amy Ziering to broach the topic on campus tours, Bongiorno says she and her daughter became determined. At first they would wait until after a tour had ended to ask tour guides, “How does the school handle sexual assault cases?” getting answers from the candid, like “Not well enough,” to the clueless (“Oh, this is not an issue, everything’s fine”).
But during their most recent campus visit, at Tufts University in Boston, Bongiorno says they got the best response yet when her daughter addressed the young fraternity member who led their tour. “He was extremely articulate, and had a detailed, two-minute answer,” she says. “And that encouraged another parent, a father, to follow up by asking if the school was currently under a Title IX investigation, which they currently are not.”
What that exchange taught her as the mother of a prospective student, she adds, is “It’s a question we should’ve been asking in public on every single tour, and will be sure to ask on all future tours. Because I think that the more parents ask these questions, the more consciousness it will raise.” After all, she says, “We ask about student-teacher ratio, class size, all kinds of questions. This one should be standard.”