LAS VEGAS, N.M. — Survivors of sexual assaults on college campuses across the nation have led a movement in recent years demanding justice for student rape victims, who often face doubt, blame, scorn and retaliation for reporting the crime to school authorities.
These efforts, documented in the 2015 Emmy Award-winning film The Hunting Ground, have led to federal investigations into more than 100 schools — including the The University of New Mexico — and policies are beginning to change.
“We have survivors’ courage to thank … for having gotten us to where we are,” Sophie Andar, a health education specialist, told a crowd of New Mexico Highlands University students following a screening of the film Tuesday. But, she said, “it shouldn’t be the burden of those who have been violated and are still on their healing journey to hold the rest of us accountable.”
Andar spoke during a panel discussion at the Las Vegas university as part of a new initiative by the state Attorney General’s Office to raise awareness of sexual violence on campuses and to let students know how they can get support and assistance. The event at Highlands was one of four Conscious Campus nights planned around the state. Another is planned Monday at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales.
The initiative comes as UNM has launched a new student sexual assault training program mandated by the U.S. Justice Department as part of an agreement reached last fall to improve its procedures for responding to rape reports. A 16-month investigation by the federal agency found gaps in UNM’s policies, a faulty grievance system and a lack of support for victims.
UNM’s poor practices were preventing students from reporting crimes and were leading some distressed victims to drop out of school, the department said in a letter to the university in April 2016.
Data released in UNM’s 2016 security report show a three-year increase in sexual and domestic violence reports. The school, which serves more than 27,000 students, documented 13 rape reports in 2015, up from 10 in 2013.
In 2015, UNM had 16 reports of fondling, up from seven in 2014 and none in 2013, according to the report, as well as five cases of dating violence, up from four in 2013; 21 cases of domestic violence, compared to 14 in 2013; and 23 reports of stalking, an increase from five two years earlier.
New Mexico State University, which serves about 15,500 students, had two reports of rape in 2015.
At Highlands, with 3,500 students, there were two sexual assaults reported in 2015 but no allegations of rape, according to the school’s annual security report.
A few students at Tuesday’s event called the campus a safe place where school officials listen to their concerns.
More than 200 Highlands students — both men and women — and several faculty members gathered in the school’s Ilfeld Auditorium to watch The Hunting Ground, a sobering and sometimes chilling film in which rape victims from some of the nation’s top colleges and universities speak about not just their attacks, but also their experiences of being harshly rebuffed by school leaders and law enforcement.
Their offenders, they said, were rarely investigated and never expelled.
One of the women interviewed in the film, Erica Kinsman, had accused 2013 Heisman Trophy winner and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston of assaulting her in 2012 at Florida State University. He was never charged with a crime and was not disciplined by university officials. In a special report in April 2014, The New York Times exposed a flawed investigation into Kinsman’s claims against the football star.
Last year, Winston, who denied the assault allegation, settled a federal lawsuit filed by Kinsman for an undisclosed amount, and Florida State agreed to pay her $950,000 in a separate suit.
Winston came under fire earlier this year over his message to a group of elementary school students. As he was encouraging the boys to “stand up … we strong,” Winston told the class that girls “are supposed to be silent, polite and gentle.”
Tuesday’s crowd at Highlands included many athletes. Some said their coaches required them to attend and watch the documentary. Several dozen remained in the auditorium for a panel discussion, led by Sonya Carrasco-Trujillo, the attorney general’s chief of staff for policy and public affairs. Along with Andar, the panel participants included Highlands Dean of Students Kimberly Blea, campus interim police Chief Clarence Romero and Tom Clayton, chief deputy district attorney for the 4th Judicial District.
The film shows that rape victims are also put on trial, Clayton told the crowd. He described a case he prosecuted in which jurors didn’t convict a man charged with rape because they thought the woman who accused him “was not emotional enough” on the stand.
“We need to educate people,” Clayton said.
Andar said she would like to see more education focused on men. “Young men’s leadership in this is so vital,” she said.
“Be a proactive bystander,” Blea urged the Highlands students.
Ida Valencia of Pecos, a member of the women’s basketball team at Highlands, said in an interview after the event that she found the documentary powerful but disturbing.
“Our coach actually had a really good point,” she said. “He leans over and tells me, ‘It’s crazy how we have these schools that are supposed to be the smartest minds in America, and according to the map shown in the video, that’s where the majority of the assaults were happening.’ … Those are the people that are our parents’ bosses, our parents’ parents’ bosses, that are in charge of these companies that are running America.
“Those are the people that are getting away with this,” she said, “and it just doesn’t make any sense.”
Contact Cynthia Miller at 505-986-3095 or email@example.com.