If you are a college-bound freshman or a parent of one, you should know this startling, stark fact: College students are at increased risk of sexual assault in the first six or so weeks after they arrive on campus.
So dangerous is this time frame that it’s been dubbed “the red zone.”
It’s a real thing, said Kristen Houser, of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, and “it’s a scary thing.”
According to the National Institute of Justice’s 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study, the highest rates of campus sexual assault were in September and October. And “women who are victimized during college are most likely to be victimized early on in their college tenure.”
“Kids and parents need to know what the red zone is, and that it definitely exists,” said Lisa R. White, director of counseling and empowerment services at YWCA Lancaster. “It is a vulnerable time for students.”
“Any time your kid is away from home for the first time, there’s a vulnerability there that you can’t remove,” Houser observed. “It’s inherent with that age ... You are all of a sudden thrown into living quarters with people you don’t know very well.
“You don’t have much choice but to try to make new friends. ... You don’t have your normal supports, or structure, to rely on.”
And there’s the “social pressure to fit in,” Houser said, adding, “The human need to have a sense of belonging is something that perpetrators can spot easily and exploit.”
Julia Dixon, 24, had been a student at The University of Akron in Ohio for little over a week when she was raped in her own room in her honors dormitory in September 2008.
“There’s this desire when you go away to college to meet as many people as you can, and you end up trusting people more than people who are older and have a little more world experience would,” she said.
“It’s an opportune time for perpetrators.”
Annie E. Clark, co-founder of the national organization End Rape on Campus, said sexual assaults happen on college campuses all year long.
But in the fall semester, when students are joining fraternities and sports teams, the initiation process sometimes includes “hooking up with different women,” Clark said, noting, “I’ve worked with some complainants through (End Rape on Campus) who say they were assaulted as part of fraternity initiation.”
Students new to campus are vulnerable for other reasons, too.
They may be daunted by their colleges’ seemingly byzantine processes for reporting and investigating sexual assault.
If they’re assaulted, they may be too shocked to grasp what’s happened to them.
Many students didn’t receive sex education in high school, let alone education on what constitutes consent, Clark said, so they may not have “a frame of reference for what healthy sex looks like.”
Students also might be drinking alcohol for their first time in their lives, and may be attending parties where, Houser said, “their naiveté, nervousness and eagerness to fit in may be both obvious to other students, and easily manipulated to increase their vulnerability."
“Being drunk or high does not cause rape,” she said. “It does not invite rape. The majority of people can become intoxicated and not get raped.”
But alcohol is the original — and still commonly employed — date rape drug.
“We know that perpetrators use drugs and alcohol strategically — not just in terms of increased victim vulnerability,” Houser said, “but to decrease their own inhibitions and as a sort of ‘social insurance’ because they count on the rest of us blaming the substance or the victim.”
A student’s story
Harmony-Jazmyne Rodriguez, of Harrisburg, said she was raped in August 2013 in her apartment at Temple University.
She had been drinking at a bar on campus. “This guy was talking to me. He took me back to my dorm. I thought he was being nice and he raped me,” Rodriguez said.
When she awoke, still inebriated, she had to check the young man out of her building. “Even though it was obvious he took advantage of me, (the campus security guards) didn’t do anything,” she said. “They let him walk away.”
She was taken to Hahnemann University Hospital to be treated for alcohol poisoning.
But according to the Title IX complaint Rodriguez has filed against Temple, the university failed to investigate her alleged assault or to provide her with assistance in its aftermath — in part, she believes, because she is transgender.
Instead, she was disciplined by the university for being drunk in public.
A September 2013 article in The Temple News, alluding to Rodriguez’s alleged rape, reported that the university was cracking down on student drinking in an attempt to curb sexual assaults.
“The majority of our sexual assaults are directly related to alcohol or some other substance,” Charlie Leone, acting executive director of Temple’s Campus Safety Services, was quoted as saying.
He added: “Our goal is to keep the students safe, even if it means protection from themselves.”
White of YWCA Lancaster said, “We need to keep the conversation on perpetrators.”
Houser of PCAR agreed: “When it comes to sexual assault ... they know what opportunities they want to exploit.”
As a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education noted, “red zone” is a term borrowed from football.
“We actually don't tend to use this term,” said Cass Cliatt, spokeswoman for Franklin & Marshall College. “We feel it demonizes a phase of beginning a student's college experience that is not characterized only by the negative.”
Cliatt said F&M will offer an enhanced range of programs to educate incoming students about sexual assault early in the fall semester. Bystander intervention will be “the centerpiece,” she said.
Millersville University and Elizabethtown College — which do use the term red zone — also plan to offer incoming students a full slate of programs on consent, bystander intervention and sexual assault prevention.
“We’re doing loads more than when I was a student, and even more than in the past three years,” said Pete Anders, chief of Millersville University police.
At some point in the first six weeks, MU students will plant red yard flags on the grass — the flags will represent the number of women who might be assaulted on a campus the size of Millersville.
According to the National Institute of Justice, 1 in 5 women are victims of sexual assault, or attempted sexual assault, while in college.
Men are victims, too, but less often; the figure for men is 6.1 percent.
At Elizabethtown, students will be handing out T-shirts bearing the acronym CARE, conveying the message that consent has to be competent, active, reversible and explicit.
And there will be other awareness-raising activities, including an interactive discussion titled Stand Up and Speak Out to Prevent Sexual Assault.
Blaming the victim
The red zone isn’t a new phenomenon.
More than 30 years ago, Anne Schober —fresh out of Lancaster Catholic High School —arrived on the campus of Gannon University in Erie.
When a young man at a fraternity party signaled his interest in her, and plied her with one drink after another, she accompanied him on a tour of the fraternity house.
He raped her in a third-floor room, as the Queen song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” playing at full volume, drowned out her screams.
Schober, a teacher turned author, later recounted the rape in her book, “Heart Prints.”
But as a young woman, she said, “I never told a single soul.”
She feared people would blame her.
“In the ‘80s, it was always the girl’s fault,” she said.
Victims still are blamed for their own assaults, advocates say.
When one Kutztown University student reported being sexually assaulted by two male college students in March 2011, she said that one of the first questions a police detective asked her was if she’d been drinking alcohol.
That spring, Kutztown University had experienced a string of sexual assaults.
This survivor vividly remembers one response on social media. Someone had written, “I think these girls need to stop drinking and get some Jesus.”
'Never deserving of rape'
Julia Dixon, a church-going Catholic with a strong moral code, went to The University of Akron expecting to enjoy the camaraderie of dorm life.
On the Monday of her first Labor Day weekend as a college student, Dixon found herself chatting outside her honors dorm with a young man who lived two doors down.
He told her he was struggling with his Christianity. She wanted to put into practice what she’d learned in her Catholic youth group — to be a witness for her faith.
A friend of the young man joined them, and the three went to a common area in the residence hall to watch YouTube videos.
When she went to get a snack — fudge her grandmother had made — the young men followed her into her room.
“It’s the first week of college,” she said. “You don’t want to be the weird, really conservative girl who says, ‘No boys in my dorm room.’ ”
The young man who lived two doors down went to his room, but his friend stayed in her room — and refused to leave.
She pushed him away, and kept telling him no — over and over again she said the word “no” — but still he raped her.
“I felt completely defeated after the assault,” she said. “I remember sitting on the floor. He asked me for my phone number. I gave it to him. What did it matter?”
She called a girl from her parish youth group who had been raped; the girl urged her to alert her resident assistant and call the police.
An ambulance took her to the hospital where she had a rape kit done.
“I’m sure my body knew what had happened, but my brain wouldn’t let me admit it,” she said. “Your brain will try to convince you of every other possibility.”
The rape kit would prove to be conclusive, but the results wouldn’t come in for some 20 months.
Dixon said university officials discouraged her from filing a complaint through the campus judicial process while the rape kit results were pending.
She eventually would file a Clery Act complaint against the university.
After her rape, Dixon’s grades faltered, and she lost her academic scholarship. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She stayed in the same dorm room for the rest of her freshman year.
The color-coordinated comforter, sheets and towels she had so carefully chosen for her room were taken into evidence by the police.
“I really forced myself to make better memories in that room to overshadow the ones that were there first,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder if it would have been better for me if I had left. .... There were nights my roommate had to call my parents to come pick me up. I had really bad nightmares.”
Her assailant, who had been charged with felony rape, pleaded to lesser charges — sexual imposition and assault, both misdemeanors.
He spent just three days in jail.
Dixon hadn’t been drinking when she was raped; she wasn’t a drinker at all.
But even if she had been, she said, “the punishment for that should never, ever be rape.”
“You can never be deserving of rape. I wouldn’t even wish it on the person who raped me.”
Her voice broke.
“”It’s too much to handle.”