Campus safety, sexual assault and high-risk drinking

It’s SOAR (Student Orientation, Advising and Registration) season here on campus and every day, I see groups of incoming students and their parents receiving an orientation to campus and to student life at UW-Madison.

Although I’ve been working on university campuses for many years, this summer I will also be the parent of a college student. I’m dropping my daughter off at Northwestern in September. I’m afraid this will remind me of the first day of kindergarten, when I left her with a teacher who was clearly far too young and (much to my surprise) found myself crying as I walked out of the building. There is always something of a “leap of faith” when you see your child head off into the next adventure and entrust them to a community of relative strangers, no matter how qualified or experienced.

We have obligations to students and families as they join our community. We’ve promised to provide a high quality education at a reasonable cost and to offer a range of resources and experiences that will help students complete a degree and succeed in their future life goals.

We are in the middle of a public conversation about how college campuses deal with sexual assault, and about the close connections between sexual assault and excessive drinking. Media coverage has rightly focused on how effectively colleges around the country are responding, and the White House and Congress are both involved.

As a result, I suspect that one question is on the mind of both students and parents even more than usual: “Is this place safe? Will they care for my son or daughter?”

As my daughter prepares to depart, I think about all the potential pitfalls of that first year in college. I worry about how she will handle it, just as I worry about our incoming UW-Madison students. Like all other universities of our size, we are not immune to the problems of sexual assault and high-risk drinking.

We know that the emotional, academic, and health consequences in the aftermath of sexual assault can be wrenching, not only for survivors, but also for the campus community at large.

Let me be clear: Sexual assault is a crime and will not be tolerated in our campus community. When sexual violence occurs at UW, we work hard to encourage a climate where survivors feel comfortable coming forward to report it and know that they’ll have access to emotional and physical support services. We have a caring and trained staff and have in place clear procedures to investigate and adjudicate these cases, while also being respectful of the wishes of the survivor with regard to confidentiality and privacy. We will support survivors whether or not they choose to report the crime to law enforcement.

In the coming weeks, all incoming students will be receiving invitations to participate in Tonight, an online program for all first-year students. This program addresses sexual assault, dating violence, and consent. Everybody has a role to play in understanding campus expectations, consequences for those who perpetrate these crimes, and how to create a safer campus community by being active observers and friends.

In the past year, UW-Madison has created a new position in the Dean of Students Office, hiring someone who has extensive training on investigating sexual assault reports. University Health Services has hired a campus-based victim advocate and continues to provide prevention initiatives. (Learn more about how UW is addressing these issues.)

Sexual assault is often intertwined with excessive use of alcohol, usually on the part of both parties involved. Because it can also lead to academic, safety, and health problems, we have taken numerous steps over the past decade to address cultural issues around drinking.

We’ve instituted a series of programs to educate new students, including the requirement for all students to participate in AlcoholEDU. We also have changed the way we approach first offenders and even changed the way the institution hosts events that include alcohol.

We’re working diligently to limit students’ access to alcohol, while at the same time acknowledging that this is ultimately under their control, not ours. I am deeply concerned about parties where students consume multiple shots and are transported by police to a detoxification center with life-threatening blood alcohol levels.

Students who choose to drink need to know how to limit their drinks. Here on campus, our staff in Student Life and in the residence halls will help our incoming students to make informed decisions and to understand how drinking can affect their academic and personal success. But students have to make these decisions on their own when they go out.

I know that the alcohol-friendly culture on campus has grown over years and reflects the ethnic heritage and culture of the state of Wisconsin. We can’t wish this away, but I plan to play a greater role speaking publicly and candidly about the toll excessive drinking takes on this campus and on college campuses all across the nation.

We’ve found that one of the most critical times for students – especially for freshmen – is during their first few weeks of the fall semester. Consequences of alcohol range from missed classes and poor grades, to citations for vandalism, to involvement in sexual assaults, to serious health risks. High-risk drinking is one of the prime reasons that some students fail to succeed at UW-Madison.

Parents can play a vital role in this effort. If you haven’t already, I urge you to have an open, honest and direct conversation about alcohol use and sexual assault with your student before they come to Madison. Talk about how alcohol limits someone’s ability to give consent, what their plans are for being a responsible Badger by looking out for their friends, and the decisions that they will have to make once they’re here. (A resource about holding that conversation is available here.) I’ll be doing the same thing with my own daughter in August.

In the end, student safety in all of its forms is a partnership between students, parents and the university, including our University Police, student life staff in Housing, University Health Services, and our Dean of Students office.

I want everybody who arrives on this campus to find a safe and welcoming community.