Avoiding the Red Zone

Colleges try to combat the sexual assaults that spike at the start of each academic year, but experts say many officials don't give students sufficient training to protect themselves or vulnerable peers.

September 12, 2019
 
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Jess Davidson remembers when the young woman leading her first-year college orientation in 2012 slipped her a sticky note

On it was a list of fraternities she instructed Davidson, who is now executive director of End Rape on Campus, a national survivor advocacy organization, to avoid. The fraternity chapters on this list were the most likely to throw parties on campus, particularly in the first few weeks of the academic year when women are most at risk for sexual assault. In hushed tones, the orientation leader told Davidson to pass on the note to other female students.

This clandestine warning was likely not the best method for teaching young women about the phenomenon on college campuses known nationally as "the Red Zone," the first six to eight weeks of the semester when more sexual assaults take place than at any other time in the year. First-year female students who are often still in their late teens and have not yet developed a social network on campus are most likely to be victimized during this time.

While many colleges have programs that educate students about the Red Zone and how to avoid it, some institutions offer ineffective, "fluffy" programs that oversimplify the issue and fail to address the underlying culture that facilitates sexual violence on campus. Sexual assault prevention activists said college administrators must do more than just make students aware of the Red Zone.

"We really see a lack of complex and comprehensive prevention curricula," Davidson said. "We often see it tied to a single session during orientation and … really quickly delivered."

Research generally identifies the Red Zone as the period of weeks lasting roughly until the Thanksgiving break, with sexual assaults skyrocketing in September and October. The term originated in the 1988 book, "I Never Called It Rape," which was largely an overview of a national study of date rape. The author of the book, Robin Warshaw, wrote that freshmen women were in the "Red Zone of danger" and far more likely to be raped as soon as they moved on to campus.

A U.S. Department of Justice study of nine colleges found that 629 sexual assaults occurred among first-year students in September and October 2014, which was more than the assaults that occurred during the next four months combined, when 521 sex assaults were reported by first-year students.

The timing of these incidents is not coincidental, the Red Zone timeframe coincides with the countless parties celebrating students' return to campus. Greek organizations also typically hold their "rush" events for students interested in joining fraternities and sororities during the first couple of months of the semester.

Freshmen are particularly vulnerable because they are unfamiliar with the campus, including where and to whom to report a sexual assault, Davidson said.

Colleges sometimes teach students to intervene when they see a scenario that could lead to sexual violence, for instance when they see a visibly drunk female freshman at a party being led away by a stranger. But many first-year students can be too scared to intervene or may not know how to assist.

That's where "bystander intervention training" is supposed to come in. Colleges use popular programs such as Green Dot, in which students learn the obstacles stopping them from stepping in when they see potential violence, and how to overcome those barriers. They receive lessons on how to diffuse a situation and distract a perpetrator of a possible sex crime and then seek help from someone, such as a bartender, a police officer or another peer, to resolve the situation.

The techniques the program teaches can also be more proactive, such as talking about bystander intervention on social media. A study of three campuses published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the institution that used Green Dot had 17 percent fewer cases of interpersonal violence compared to the two colleges that had no bystander intervention training. A representative from Green Dot did not respond to a request for comment.

Not every college has such comprehensive training, however, and some training does not address some of the more pervasive problems that result in sexual assaults, said S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, which consults with colleges and universities.

College officials often focus on warning students about the dangers of drinking too much or caution them to stay away from parties where they could be sexually abused. This puts the onus to prevent sexual assault on the victim, which is not helpful, Carter said.

"They are treating the symptom and not the disease," Carter said.

Delaying the "rush" period on college campuses, which would allow students time to develop supportive social networks, or implementing other policy changes targeting parties during the Red Zone could lead to less sexual violence, but these solutions have largely not been studied, Carter said.

Pennsylvania State University moved the rush period on its campus from fall to the spring semester after a fraternity pledge died in a hazing incident. It was an attempt by the university to limit alcohol abuse at Greek events, where sexual assaults can occur.

Although the concept of the Red Zone is widely recognized, researchers haven't yet studied what works in mitigating it. Academics interested in the topic of campus sexual assault often focus more on producing studies that support existing sexual assault data -- such as the widely cited statistic that 1 in 4 undergraduate women are sexually assaulted during their time on campus -- often dismissed as exaggerations, Carter said.

College have tried outright bans on certain events and groups in an attempt to slow sexual assaults, specifically around the Red Zone. Harvard University established a policy restricting a student belonging to a single-gender organization -- fraternities, sororities, and the all-male final clubs, whose members were accused of misogynistic and sexually violent behavior -- from holding a leadership position in a university-affiliated group or athletics team.

"I don't necessarily think you have to approach it like Harvard," Carter said. "That's certainly not necessary to accomplish what you want. To address this, you're looking at the structure of those organizations. And that faces a lot of resistance."

The University of New Mexico launched a campaign called "Reclaim the Red" two years ago. It's largely a social media campaign that encourages students and staff to share the #ReclaimTheRed hashtag to make students aware of the existence of the Red Zone, said Lisa Lindquist, director of the LoboRESPECT Advocacy Center.

She said the university has seen an increase in reports of sexual violence since making sexual assault and bystander intervention training mandatory for all incoming students. The rise in reports means students feel more comfortable telling administrators about their experiences, she said.

Lindquist said students often don't understand consent when they arrive on campus.

"Then you add alcohol or other substances to that, when you're experimenting with who you are, when you're first coming into school, obviously that has an impact on what consent looks like."

Ohio University makes visible attempts to combat the Red Zone by hanging banners across campus stating that the university supports sexual assault survivors. Some of the banners have messages targeting the Red Zone, said Kimberly Castor, director of the university's Survivor Advocacy Program.

The banners were a public information campaign devised by the Student Senate on campus, Castor said. The university has also held art exhibits centered on sexual violence.

Castor said one of the most effective training programs provided by representatives of the Office of the Dean of Students involves an annual talk during freshman orientation aptly named "the pizza talk." The presenter compares consent to a pizza and uses it as a metaphor for personal agency, reminding students that just because a person orders a pizza once, she may not want to order it again, or may not want the same toppings. But under no circumstances should anyone ever be forced to eat the pizza, Castor said.

Castor said learning about the Red Zone and sexual assaults early in their college careers can empower students. She recalled when some students hung sexist banners on housing near campus, including one that read "You taught her to walk, we'll teach her to ride." Sorority members who had gotten the sexual assault awareness training posted a banner with a rebuttal: "You taught her to be fearful, we'll teach her to deserve better."

"It's good to see our students responding," Castor said

Lydia Ramlo, president of the Student Senate, said her recollection of the training she received as a freshman through an online module about the intersection of alcohol and sexual assault, is "foggy." She used her role as a student leader to push for the banners that promoted support for survivors around the campus and for the university to adopt a safety application for mobile devices. The app, Bobcat Safe, features a "walk with a friend" tool students can use to track their friends' whereabouts if they leave a party alone.

Despite the increased focus on campus sexual assaults in general, and those that occur in the Red Zone in particular, getting students to pay attention to the problem and take the recommended precautions and awareness training seriously can still be challenging, Ramlo said.

"It's a really hard conversation, and there's no clear answer," she said. "You can't force people in a room to listen who don't want to soak in that information. There's the whole metaphor of you lead a horse to water."

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