Tebben Gill Lopez/ The Mirror

Sen. Blumenthal (second from left) speaks to students, faculty and administration, asking for insight on how to prevent sexual assault. 

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal hosted a roundtable discussion about sexual assault Friday in the Dolan School of Business Dining Room with students, faculty and administration from Fairfield, Sacred Heart, Quinnipiac and other area schools.

Congressman Jim Himes also spoke on the panel along with Laura Cordes, executive director of Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, Inc.

At the event, Blumenthal asked for insight on “underreporting [of sexual assault], what the reasons are, what can be done, for example through bystander intervention, to prevent the behaviors that may lead to sexual assault, whether it is drinking or other kinds of behaviors.”

According to Blumenthal, “the first thing to understand about sexual assault is that it’s a crime – it’s a heinous and horrific crime.

“Sexual assault is absolutely unacceptable and intolerable, whether in the military or in our neighborhoods, in our homes, and so we have an obligation, all of us, to do something about it.”

According to Cordes, “We are trying to change the culture.”

Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Tom Pellegrino agreed that the issue lies in changing the culture. “I think at Fairfield, we can be a leader and change agent in this arena … That much was clearly on display with the thoughtful and insightful comments from our students. I have never been more proud of our students than I was this past Friday.”

Blumenthal said he has “been involved in this issue over a number of years and wanted to convene these forums around the state of Connecticut to raise consciousness about this issue.”

He said the broader public tends to be in denial about the issue. “We all want to pretend it isn’t there, but you know it is, we know it is, and the President of the United States knows it is,” said Himes.

A report from the White House Council of Women and Girls concluded that, “The prevalence of sexual assault on campuses is staggering, but it’s very underreported,” according to Blumenthal.

Addressing the audience, Blumenthal said: “You coming here is a very powerful statement that you’re not afraid to confront the truth, and we want other educators, leaders, universities, public officials state, local, federal, to help also raise awareness so that others will be as courageous as you are.”

Himes also addressed the issue, saying “the battle is not yet won for the allocation of resources to address a staggering problem – one in five women over the course of their lifetime being a victim.”

“Unless we change the way – let’s be direct here – young men think about issues around sexual violence and what is tolerable and what is not, all the legislation in the world won’t fix this,” said Himes.

According to Blumenthal, “Sexual assault is not a women’s issue; it is a societal issue, it’s a men’s issue.”

Resident Assistant Spencer Colpitts ‘14 spoke about how Residence Life is working to change the culture.

Man to Man is a ResLife program which, according to Colpitts, “engages students on what it means to demonstrate positive masculinity and positive mentorship on a college campus.” Man to Man has worked with Director of Public Safety Todd Pelazza on discussing the role males play in sexual assault, and how to use preventative tactics like verbal intervention without being aggressive.

Pellegrino stated that “we have to turn the education approach on its head and put more focus on our males. Here, then, is the key and compelling invitation to students to engage with us in this work, and the great thing is that its already flourishing in programs on our campus like Man to Man … I think we should expand this further to our Orientation and First Year Experience programs.”

Senior Astrid Quinones said “not all men are rapists, and not all men should be considered perpetrators or that they might be perpetrators. We need to unite men and say we don’t think you will be, but we want you to protect yourselves as a community of people … the idea that it is only men is not being fair to men.”

Assistant Director of Public Safety John Ritchie said that the issue is “no longer about how to respond to assaults, it’s also now about getting in front of it to change the cultural behaviors.”

According to Ritchie, programming about sexual assault is not new, but has been focused on “getting people to come forward.” New programming would promote bystander intervention, which is getting bystanders to reach out, intervene and prevent an assault from happening.

RA Matt DeCaprio ‘15, who is also involved in leading the Man to Man program, said he advises students to “focus on your friends … if you go out as a group, come back as a group.”

RoundTable 3

Senior Rachel Lang speaks at Senator Blumenthal’s roundtable discussion about preventing sexual assault.

Senior Rachel Lang said “it is necessary that campuses across the nation ensure accountability and confidentiality for victims, to avoid re-victimization and trauma.”

She proposed solutions such as a “college advocate” for students to seek services, including “open and closed support groups for people to come in and seek the services as they need them.”

Pellegrino stated that “it is beneficial that [survivors] have access to resources external from, as well as internal to the university.”

He addressed Lang’s idea of having a college advocate, stating that, “Fairfield has strong ties with [Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services], the Center for Family Justice and other agencies, and will continue to strengthen these relationships.”

Ritchie said that the insight from students’ experiences shared at the event “adds validity to what we’re doing.”

“This roundtable discussion has hit a number of very important points, like the need to change the culture at an early age, not just in the university, the need for more advocates on behalf of survivors, as well as counseling,” said Blumenthal. He also said that obstacles include a lack of resources and a lack of awareness.

“I don’t think sexual assault is a partisan issue; it’s not a democrat or a republican issue. It’s much more a lack of understanding or awareness,” said Blumenthal.

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