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District attorney's campaign to end campus sex assaults

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO<br/>Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan Friday launched a campaign to end sexual assaults on local college campuses by 2020.

    GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
    Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan Friday launched a campaign to end sexual assaults on local college campuses by 2020. Purchase photo reprints »

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO<br/>Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan Friday launched a campaign to end sexual assaults on local college campuses by 2020.

AMHERST — Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan wants to wipe out sexual assaults on local college campuses by the year 2020. To help do that, his office launched three public service announcements and detailed a new sexual assault prevention campaign Friday.

Sullivan outlined the goals at a conference at Hampshire College that drew about 50 people, mostly college leaders and students. “I picked the date because I think you need a goal,” Sullivan told the Gazette. “It’s ambitious, but doable.”

Key tools are three video messages that feature students from the Five Colleges and Greenfield Community College. The pieces were developed with the help of a student committee.

One shows a male student touching the breasts of a female student he is dancing with. The young woman quickly tells him he needs stop. He did not ask her permission. Another video shows a young man telling a friend that he needs to speak to women with more respect after hearing comments the friend made to a group of girls at a party.

A third video gives viewers an example of how to create a distraction for someone to escape an uncomfortable social situation that could lead to a sexual assault.

“We wanted to make sure we gave students tools for if they see sexual assault,” said Mary Patierno of Ashfield, who directed the videos. “I’m hoping that when they are at parties they can see the warning signs.”

Mary Kociela, director of domestic violence projects at the DA’s office, said campaign seeks to make clear that “consent is the difference between sex and rape.”

Sullivan said he recognizes that while the messages in the new videos are aimed at assaults against women perpetuated by men, “there is a stereotype that sexual assault can only be between a man and a woman.” Sullivan said he hopes to address other situations, such as violence in gay and lesbian relationships, when further funding becomes available.

In addition to the PSAs, the DA’s office debuted posters that feature lines from the videos, such as, “I hate when men harass women. What if she were your sister?” and buttons with the message “I ask. Do you?” With all of this material now available, the conference focused on discussing how the message will be heard.

In his opening remarks Friday, Sullivan urged those present to “social network your heart out.”

Later in the conference, participants broke into small groups to discuss how to spread the campaign, what challenges they believe exist in the campaign and to set specific plans. Groups were encouraged to think about low-cost and free modes of spreading the message, but not to overlook ideas that cost money. Many of the ideas were about how to distribute the PSAs, posters and buttons.

The videos are available on YouTube and the DA’s office Facebook page. Participants expressed hope that people will share them on social media. In addition, they discussed advertising on PVTA buses, billboards, local television stations and during college sporting events.

Getting the word out

Some suggested collaborating with artists to share the campaign message at exhibits, or to create murals. One person suggested playing the videos on the website where students are required to change their email passwords. Others suggested partnering with bars and liquor stores, or putting ads on cups for students to use at parties.

Kociela said her office will take Friday’s ideas and shape a plan.

Despite the optimism expressed, many noted challenges the campaign will face.

In his own group, Sullivan said he sees a need to provide survivors of sexual assault not only with medical help, but with emotional and spiritual aid. Others were worried that students would tire of hearing the message, or that some would manipulate the campaign messages for their own gain.

Many participants agreed that sexual assault prevention and education must come from peers, and then be supported by institutions like the DA’s office. They spoke of involving community members and student groups and engaging youth in middle and high schools.

Participants also explored the legal definition of rape and what to do as bystanders who see the possibility of assault.

“I think it is crucial to understand the difference between the law and common decency,” said Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Handel Suhl.

Suhl noted that a victim is not required to physically or verbally resist an attack, but juries can still consider it a factor.

Volunteers from the Center for Women and Community defined consent as “an enthusiastic yes” that does not have to be verbal, but stressed that consent is something that can be changed at any point.

Many said sexual assault training should be required during college orientations.

“I think we need to stress that this issue is more important than just one day,” Sullivan said. “It would be great to have a week dedicated to sexual assault education, even though a week still isn’t enough.”

“The majority of cases are happening on college campuses with the influence of drugs and alcohol, and only about 50 percent are reported,” said Susan Loehn, a prosecutor with the DA’s domestic violence and sexual assault unit. “We need to not be passive, but step up and take responsibility.”

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