Kristin McCovery says she was about to end a date with a fellow Howard University student on a January night three years ago when things suddenly took a wrong turn.
After having consensual sex, the man wasn’t ready for her to leave his dorm room. He pushed her back onto the bed, where she hit her head on a windowsill. Frightened and held against her will, she screamed and banged on a wall in a plea for help, but he turned up the music so loud that no one could hear her.
The 21-year-old, who chose to be identified, told The Root during a recent telephone interview that she was then sexually assaulted. And the nightmare didn’t end there. After reporting the incident to the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, no charges were filed because of missing information, she said. She also tried to get assistance from a student resident adviser, but to no avail. Her alleged attacker remains on the Washington, D.C., campus.
“It was stressful,” she says of life after the incident. “My grades tanked that semester, and I slept all of the time. I had my family, but it felt like I had no one to turn to for help.”
McCovery apparently is not alone. Approximately 1 in 5 college women is sexually assaulted by the time she graduates, but just 12 percent of students report the assaults, according to a report (pdf) released this summer by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).
In an effort to address the problem of campus sexual assaults, the White House last month announced the nationwide campaign It’s on Us. The initiative came after students across the country filed federal complaints that accused officials of mishandling their sexual assault cases.
“The good news is, now that this issue is really getting the kind of national attention, I don’t think you put the genie back in the bottle,” Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president, told The Root during a recent interview in New York City.
In early September, Jarrett met with 12 student-body presidents from universities in the New York area to hear how they plan to tackle the problem. “They were sharing best practices and experiences that they’re having so that the students, particularly the student-body presidents, are the conduit to the university,” she says. “They have a direct ability to talk to the leadership of the universities and share with them what they think makes sense.”
Peer intervention is a big part of the program. Student leaders and administrators will encourage students to report trouble to law enforcement and school officials.
“Listening to the students, you hear these stories of these parties where they see trouble brewing,” Jarrett says. “What can we do to empower people to feel that they should not be a bystander, and that they can actually intervene? The more people get in the habit of intervening, the more common it will become, and the more it begins to be unacceptable.
Intervention could simply come in the form of not allowing a drunken friend to leave a club with a stranger, Mary V. Pickford, student-body president at Spelman College in Atlanta, told The Root. If the woman does leave, friends are encouraged to get the man’s driver’s license number and other identifying information. Pickford also recommends the buddy system, where friends who arrive at a club vow to only leave together. Additionally, she suggests texting upon safe arrival at a date’s home or even their own residences.
“Communication and education are the key to stopping sexual assaults,” Pickford, a senior, says.
One major study found that sexual assaults are reportedly lower on HBCU campuses than on others, primarily because of less alcohol abuse. Morgan State University in Baltimore is the only HBCU on a list of more than 70 universities and colleges that the Department of Education is investigating for how they handle cases of sexual assault, the report says.
Despite the low numbers, Tricia Bent-Goodley, professor of social work and director of the Interpersonal Violence Prevention Program at Howard, says education is important, especially programs like the White House’s It’s on Us.
“It’s important because it will further the educational experiences of young people,” Bent-Goodley says. “It will promote equity among students and encourage students to become more aware” of the problem.
And schools that receive grant money, or Title IX dollars, from the Justice Department are supposed to design programs to combat sexual violence. This fall, Howard held a mandatory Title IX orientation session for freshmen.
McCovery will graduate in the spring with a degree in political science, and there is some encouraging news for her. After years of frustration, Howard’s Title IX coordinator is now investigating the incident, an announcement that came after her story was told on NPR, she said. Howard declined to discuss the incident because it’s under investigation.
McCovery said she was pleased about the news and praised the White House initiative, saying, “I wish it were in place years ago. But this is a start.”
Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root. The New York-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor at Ebony magazine.