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VOL. 122 | NO. 94 | Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Memphis Consortium Works To Combat Sex Crimes on Campuses

By Rosalind Guy

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DELICATE MATTERS: Judy Coffey, right, manager of the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center, and MSARC employee Judy Pinson discuss a rape crisis kit. All local rape examinations are handled at the center on Union Avenue Extended so victims don't have to wait for hours in hospital emergency rooms. -- Photo By Rosalind Guy

The Duke University lacrosse team rape incident a year ago put the national spotlight on an issue that plagues universities all across the nation: sexual assaults on campus.

Three team members were charged with raping a dancer who was hired to perform for them at a party. The alleged attack took place March 13, 2006.

During the entire year the case played out in the media and in a Durham, N.C., courtroom, the players maintained their innocence.

Although charges eventually were dropped against the three athletes, the seriousness of sex crimes has not diminished on college campuses.

A local consortium of nine organizations, including four colleges, is working to raise awareness in Memphis about the prevalence of sex crimes as well as getting the word out about where victims can turn for help.

Starting this summer, the program will launch with events on some college campuses, but will kick into full gear this fall.

Victims waiting to happen

Less than 3 percent of all college women become rape victims (either completed or attempted), according to the 2005 National Institute of Justice study "Sexual Assault on Campus: What Colleges and Universities Are Doing About It."

That translates into 35 such crimes for every 1,000 female students. So, for a campus with 10,000 women students, the number could reach 350.

Those numbers are staggering, said Dr. Lynn Wildmon, project manager and director of the Memphis Safe Campus Consortium.

With that in mind, Dr. Anne Kenworthy, a former professor at Crichton College, applied about a year ago for a U.S. Department of Justice grant to raise awareness and educate students about sexual assault, rape and domestic violence on local college campuses.

"It was roughly $399,000, a lot in comparison to most grants," said Wildmon.

She said the grant was so large because of the wide range of groups involved in the effort. The grant was awarded in 2006 by the Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women.

The consortium consists of Crichton College, the University of Memphis, Rhodes College, Christian Brothers University, the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center, the Shelby County Crime Victims Center, Family Services of the Mid-South, the Exchange Club of Memphis and the Memphis Police Department.

A united front

Anna Whalley, clinical coordinator for the Shelby County Crime Victim's Center, said consortium participants are in the process of training student leaders, who will be working on each campus to orient people to the program.

"So, we're helping with that part of it," Whalley said. "Giving them a background on those types of crimes against women."

In addition to the training, the Crime Victim's Center also will provide follow-up services for victims.

Whalley said the program is something that has been needed for a long time.

"It was something we talked about; it would come up in different meetings that there was a need to do some education on campuses," Whalley said. "But having the grant gives us a focus of making sure that it's getting done. It provides the impetus to do this education that's been needed to be done for a while."

Wildmon said one crime that's gaining popularity on campuses is the use of drugs such as Rohypnol also known as "ruffies." The drugs, which are odorless and tasteless, are dropped in beverages unbeknownst to victims.

"You don't remember what's happened to you," Wildmon said. "So the drugs are being used to make (the victim) vulnerable and to make sure they forget what's happening so (the perpetrator) won't get caught or get in trouble."

In addition to educating students, consortium members have had to work with disciplinary boards to make them aware of the existence and seriousness of the situation.

"It is a crime and it's going to be handled that way from this point forward," Wildmon said. "That's part of the implementation on these campuses, to help infiltrate the judicial systems and get them to understand that you have a victim that needs to be helped and you have a perpetrator who needs to be kicked out of school and turned over to the police."

Tight jeans? No excuse

This summer, there will be a basic educational campaign on the college campuses for students attending summer school. But the program really will kick into gear when the fall semester rolls around.

"In the fall will be our big kickoff and that is where we will actually go in to each campus and do the one-hour presentation for the new students and be there for them to ask questions," Wildmon said. "We'll be there to provide assistance as needed and to get them the resources that they need. We'll also be disseminating information through posters and brochures and cards and bumper stickers, all kinds of products that we want to have pretty much posted all over the campuses and within the community around the campus, maybe where the students go to eat or hang out, those kinds of places."

There also will be more awareness-raising activities such as the "Denim Day: Break the Silence" event the consortium sponsored a couple of weeks ago. Everyone who supports the groups' goals was encouraged to wear jeans to work or school.

The local event grew from a national campaign to protest harmful attitudes and misconceptions about crimes against women.

The protest campaign began in response to a 1999 Italian Supreme Court ruling in which a rape conviction was overturned because the victim was wearing tight jeans.

"That's just one more thing that's going on," Wildmon said. "The victims are being blamed for what's happening to them. And that's just a way of saying 'Hey, I can wear what I want and it doesn't give you a right to take my body and do with it whatever you want to do.'"

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