Brittany Buffum contributed to a roundtable discussion focusing on campus sexual assault from her vantage point as a student, employee and union member at Syracuse University. The discussion, led by Kathy Hochul, the Democratic candidate for Lt. Governor, was held Oct. 21 at Le Moyne College in Syracuse. Buffum joined a half-dozen female students in the 60-minute conversation.
Buffum is earning a bachelor of Professional Studies in creative leadership at Syracuse University, works there as a Library Technician and is the Recording Secretary for the largest unit in Service Employees International Union Local 200United. “I really stressed the staff perspective of this issue,” Buffum said, “because people tend to leave that out. It’s been about trained faculty, trained students. I stressed the point that if you also train staff you’re going to get more bang for your buck. Faculty have 30 people in a class. We work alongside these students, and there are 800 of us on campus; that’s a lot of points of contact. Some of us take on a role—surrogate parent, older sibling. Maybe they feel more comfortable coming to us with an issue as touchy as a sexual assault.”
The union at Syracuse University provides another way to help students deal with sexual assaults on such a large campus. “I brought up the point about the union,” Buffum said, “because we represent advocacy on all levels. Victims, as well as those of us they may have confided in, aren’t always comfortable going to human resources. They look to us as leaders, but find us more as friends.”
Hochul’s visit came on the heels of the release on Oct. 2 of a state-wide policy to deal with sexual violence on SUNY campuses. Gov. Andrew Cuomo attended the Oct. 2 meeting of the SUNY Board of Trustees, urging them to pass a resolution to establish a set of policies that each of the 64 SUNY campuses will adopt. A few weeks later, Hochul was at the private Jesuit college in Syracuse because it has implemented a program, Relationships 101, focusing on the issue of sexual violence on campus. Incoming freshmen attend the seminar during their orientation.
“It’s a national model for other universities,” Hochul pointed out. Programs like Relationships 101, however, shouldn’t just be reserved for first-year students, Buffum said. “You need to present it to all students before each school year.”
The other women in attendance are students at Le Moyne, Syracuse University, SUNY Binghamton and Cornell University. “We all introduced ourselves, the roles we play,” Buffum said, “what we think about the issue currently, where we want this effort to go.”
Afterwards, other panelists told Buffum they were grateful for her staff-driven perspective. “I had several people thank me because it wasn’t something they had thought of,” she said. “Staff is always there, on campus, but they’re invisible, part of the scenery.”
Cuomo’s resolution includes implementing a uniform, system-wide definition of consent that is required between participants before engaging in sexual activity; an immunity policy to protect students coming forward to report sexual assault; a statewide training program for campus police and administrators regarding how to address sexual assault incidents; a public campaign to increase awareness among students and parents; and a uniform Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights that will, in clear and specific language, inform a student of his or her rights following an attack including the option of approaching State Police.
The national statistics regarding college sexual assaults are alarming. Women in the traditional age range for college students—from 18 to 21—are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women in any other age group. Nearly one-quarter of women and 4 percent of men report having been sexually assaulted during their college years. And the fact that many of these sexual assaults take place between acquaintances blurs understandings both of consent and of assault, and lessens the likelihood of reporting. Unlike “stranger rape,” acquaintance rape may not even be perceived by those involved as rape, which may discourage or delay disclosure.
“The earlier the victim can get to somebody they are comfortable with, the more possible it is to collect evidence,” stressed Buffum. “Seventy-two hours is a small window, and sometimes it takes a student longer than that to come to terms and deal with what happened. It’s important to create a safe space to report it.”
National statistics show that fewer than 5 percent of sexual assaults on campus are reported and even fewer of those make it into the court of law.
Despite new legislation that requires reporting of assaults, many students still don’t feel safe reporting without retribution,” Buffum said. It’s difficult for students, many of whom are underage, to admit they had been drinking, which leads to a real reluctance for them to come forward. Part of Cuomo’s Sexual Assault Policy provides amnesty to encourage students to report what they have witnessed or may have been told. “Part of my message was to let students know they have allies on all levels.”
The students participating in the roundtable stressed to Hochul the importance of some sort of amnesty, Buffum said. “They were big on promoting to Kathy that there be protection for the reporter, whether it be the victim or a friend,” she added. “They need to know they are not going to be punished for breaking the code of conduct for coming forward.” Furthermore, that 72-hour window is crucial for helping the victim as well as identifying the suspect.
After the roundtable, Hochul spoke to the Syracuse media. “This issue has been elevated in all of our minds as an issue we need to address from a multi-faceted approach,” she told WAER-FM 88.3. “It’s about prevention. It’s about a culture that young men come to campus with; they need to learn to treat women with respect. If people see something, they say something.
“We must change the culture,” Hochul continued, “let victims know that they have a support system that will look out for them and not make them feel that they’ve done something wrong, and that they have legal recourse.”