“The reporting has to go up before it can go down.”
That’s what Kate Lawson has been preaching at Xavier University since she started at the school as chief Title IX officer in July 2013. It’s also the message Colleen Reynolds, a Xavier graduate and current director of community affairs for Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, helped spread at Xavier and now is preaching to the city of Cincinnati.
They’re talking about the number of students that report gender-based violence on college campuses, and now they’re working together to bring the success Xavier has seen in increasing that number to the community at large.
It’s counterintuitive, but, “Because gender-based violence is so underreported, particularly sexual violence, because of all of the misinformation and stereotypes and victim blame and social stigma — all the barriers in place — the more reports we get indicates not that it’s happening more but that more people are identifying what has happened to them and understanding that that’s not OK and are coming forward,” Lawson said.
Gender-based violence is an umbrella term used to describe sexual assault, sexual harassment, partner or domestic violence, gender discrimination or bias, and stalking. It’s a serious issue on college campuses, Lawson said. She said sexual assault affects one in four women and one in six men on college campuses.
It’s also an issue people don’t like to talk about.
When she was hired, Lawson became Xavier’s first full-time Title IX officer, an important step for Xavier, she said, because it showed the university’s commitment to be part of the solution to campus gender-based violence.
From the fall of 2014 to the fall of 2015, the number of students reporting gender-based violence at Xavier nearly tripled — rising from four reports of rape in 2014 to 11 reports in 2015. That’s a positive change, Lawson said, because students have to feel more comfortable about coming forward to report what happened before there can be fewer incidences of gender-based violence occurring.
“Gender-based violence is unique,” she said. “It’s a uniquely poised cultural and social issue. It’s one of the only crimes where we interrogate the victim first, so, if we’re not looking at the issue from its unique position, we’re not going to get very far.”
Since the fall, Lawson has served as an advisory committee member of the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s Changing Campus Culture initiative, which works to educate and strengthen sexual-violence prevention and response systems at state colleges and universities. She’s also served as co-chairwoman of the Cincinnati Task Force to Reduce Campus Gender-Based Violence, a task force Reynolds launched with Sittenfeld in September to link prevention and advocacy efforts on local college campuses with local government policies.
“It seems small, but it’s a revolutionary change from the traditional culture of how we treat gender-based violence,” Lawson said. “Most victims only reach out to one person, and, if that person isn’t connected to the right people to help them, they don’t report it. We want to form a connective net for campus gender-based violence survivors in Cincinnati so we can connect them with people who can help them learn what their options and resources are.”
When Reynolds was a senior at Xavier, she served as president of the Student Government Association and, because of the work she saw Lawson doing, made gender-based violence prevention, advocacy and education one of her top priorities. She taped a public service announcement last spring of Xavier students’ sharing the It’s On Us message, a message that launched nationally in 2014 as a new public-awareness and education campaign to engage college students and other members of campus communities in preventing sexual assault.
When she started working for Sittenfeld last May, that It’s On Us message is one Reynolds knew she wanted to expand to the city of Cincinnati.
“It was a light-bulb moment of saying there’s a real missing piece here,” Reynolds said. “Most of the time, these students are experiencing gender-based violence off campus, so we need to get the city government and police and support organizations involved and communicating with one another.”
It makes sense that Xavier is one of the universities leading the charge on Reynolds’ It’s On Us Cincinnati campaign with Lawson as co-chairwoman.
“If gender-based violence hadn’t been a priority for Xavier, it wouldn’t have been a priority for me, and it wouldn’t now be a priority for the city,” Reynolds said.
Lawson said that, even though it’s come a long way since she was hired, Xavier isn’t finished with the work it needs to do on gender-based violence issues. “It’s a long game,” she said.
To help keep the momentum going, Xavier hired its first advocacy and prevention coordinator, Paisley Scarberry, in November to provide confidential support to Xavier students who have experienced gender-based violence, whether that support is with safety, academics or housing. “I help with any issue they have to make sure their needs are met so they can continue their education as safely as possible,” Scarberry said.
Since she started meeting with students in the beginning of December, Scarberry said she’s worked with around 37 people, most of whom found out about her services through word of mouth. She expects that number to grow.
This fall, Xavier will implement a gender-based violence prevention peer-education program that will focus specifically on student-led prevention and education efforts thanks to a grant it received from the Changing Campus Culture initiative.