The First 30 Days

He and she are friends, college students drinking together in his dorm room. He drinks a beer. She drinks a beer. Then another. And one more. Alcohol usually becomes a factor.

Fueled by the alcohol, he tries to kiss her. She says no. He says yes. But he doesn’t stop with just a kiss. Suddenly she is trapped with a man, supposedly her friend, whom she no longer recognizes. He becomes loud. Demanding. Forceful. A monster suddenly unleashed. She has little choice about what happens next.

         Jenny Adams and Mariana Lightman understand the scenario. They’ve heard different permutations of the story from Cal Poly women, mostly freshmen, over the years. Especially every September and October, during what sexual assault experts call “The First 30 Days.”

         “The statistics indicate that 1 in 4 college women will experience a sexual assault. Their first 30 days on campus is the most dangerous time, the time when they will most likely be assaulted,” says Mariana, who is the coordinator of Cal Poly’s Sexual Assault Free Environment Resource (SAFER) program.

         The first 30 days ended at Cal Poly last Wednesday. Jenny, who serves as executive director of the Sexual Assault Recovery and Prevention Center (SARP) in San Luis Obispo, says this year there were four student rapes reported to campus police since the beginning of classes. “That’s a huge increase,” says Jenny. “It doesn’t mean only four students were raped, since this number only covers on-campus attacks. More than likely, there were also reports to local police about off-campus attacks, but we won’t see those figures until the end of the quarter.”

         A 2006 report by the U.S. Justice Department cites rape as the most common violent crime on American college campuses. More than 80 percent of assaults involve drugs and alcohol. Justice department officials estimate that 95 percent of rapes go unreported.

         Freshman students are especially vulnerable, says Jenny. “You’re 18 years old. Right out of high school. Coming to college. Newfound freedom. More high-risk behavior. Testing limits. People get hurt because they’re not always sure how to keep themselves safe.”

         The First 30 Days is a national program designed to educate college students, especially freshmen, about the need to be more aware of their surroundings and the choices they make in adjusting to campus life. Mariana and other SAFER volunteers blanketed the Cal Poly dorms with materials raising awareness about sexual assault and also spoke to students during WOW Week.

         SAFER is a relatively new campus program that has really flourished in the last year since student government created a paid position and brought in Mariana. Her group works closely with SARP to create a uniform message to students. “Rape is not going to be tolerated at Cal Poly,” Mariana says. “I believe there has been an increase in reporting. Women are feeling more comfortable about coming forward.”

         The vast majority of campus sexual assaults involve two students who know each other, compounding the situation. Mariana reminds students constantly that they can especially be at risk with someone they know. “If someone has broken their trust, the victim blames herself and that can be a barrier to reporting.”

         Only a very small number of rape cases are prosecuted successfully. Beyond the trauma of the assault, victims also struggle to keep up in classes and remain engaged. 

         Many end up leaving campus, says Jenny. “Often times, these are assaults involving students who are friends in a larger circle of friends. A sorority. A soccer team. Those friends get involved on both sides, but the focus usually remains on the victim. They ask her ‘How did you let this happen?’” The victims don’t feel supported, so they leave.”

         Mariana is busy planning the 6th Annual Run to Remember, a 5k evening run, held on campus on October 24th to raise awareness about sexual assault and encourage the San Luis Obispo community to get involved in the fight to end sexual violence. For more information, call SAFER at 756-2282.

         Meanwhile, both Jenny and Mariana see the increased involvement of male students as integral to their joint campaign at Cal Poly. “The uphill battle is that we keep talking about the victims. Men have to come in as our allies,” says Jenny. “The majority of rapists are men, but the majority of men are not rapists. They have mothers, sisters, girlfriends and daughters. We need these men to stand up and speak out.” 

         All of our voices have to be heard. We have 333 days to learn how to shout.

SLO City News (October 2007)

Published by Dave Congalton

Writer. Radio Host. Screenwriter. Enjoying the Good Life on California's Central Coast.

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