Mids hear frank talk on sexual assault

Expanded Academy program includes 25 hours of training

October 28, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun reporter

List them.

Call them out.

Go ahead, don't be shy, urge the two midshipmen, who are looking for fellow students to help them compile a list of common terms for promiscuous men and women.

The men are "studs" and "pimps." And the women? "Slut" and "door knob" are called out immediately, and beyond that, well, suffice it to say the words aren't really allowed in a family newspaper. And the list in this category, it goes on and on.

Midshipmen Joy Dewey and Joshua Foxton have a point to make to their classmates, one that isn't quite new in the lexicon of gender studies and societal perceptions but still hits home to the ones they're trying to reach: Men who sleep around are lionized, and women are put down, objectified, shunned.

"A lot of times, the problem you have with sexual assault training is that people go, `It's never going to happen to me, it's never going to happen to anyone I know, so I don't need to deal with it,' " said Dewey, 21, a leading figure in the academy's new Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention Education, or SHAPE, which was announced earlier this year. "But what this [training] does is place the responsibility not just on yourself, but as a future officer, a responsibility on you for that command that you're going to have one day."

Just a few years ago, this kind of frank talk was pretty rare at the Naval Academy, most will acknowledge. But not anymore.

After a sexual assault scandal rocked the Air Force Academy in 2003 and was followed by several high-profile court cases in Annapolis, students such as Dewey and Foxton are on the front lines of a far-reaching education and prevention effort that may exceed that of any other university.

The SHAPE program, which now reaches only freshmen but will expand to all classes within the next three years, makes training in sexual misconduct mandatory. By the time they graduate, every midshipman must receive 25 hours of training, a figure that some critics believe is not nearly enough.

Still, unlike previous education efforts, which were usually given after lunch via slide shows for 30 minutes, little is repetitive, and students are learning the meaning of terms such as bystander, consent, masculinity, rape trauma syndrome and survivor recovery.

If they miss it, they have to make it up. Students such as Dewey and Foxton are giving up more than half of their paltry free time to the seminars. Dewey even went to a conference last week in Orlando to present details about the program to other universities.

More than 130 midshipmen are specifically trained either to educate their peers about sexual misconduct, troubleshoot in small groups to disrupt a situation that could develop into harassment or assault, or act as authorities to whom incidents can be reported.

"We're trying to break the link in the chain," said Cmdr. Ricks Polk, who along with a group of consultants helped design the new program and is overseeing its implementation. "I don't know how many times I heard in a case that if [a person] ... would have done something, taken some action, it might break that chain of events that allowed the assault to ultimately take place. No one thing caused the assault, but all of them could have possibly stopped it from happening."

In the program's first months, Polk and students said, they've been surprised with how well the training has been received. New methods in trying to involve students in discussions, like the "stud" vs. "slut" example that was demonstrated on Thursday for reporters, have led to a number of what they like to call "aha" or "whoa" moments among those they're instructing.

In another case, they held a seminar dubbed "1 in 4" just for men, in which they highlighted the widely publicized statistic that one in four college-age women experiences sexual assault. A police officer described a male-on-male rape, and the students then asked Mids how they would feel if it happened to them.

"You could hear a pin drop," said Polk, the academy's sexual assault response coordinator.

They also tell the freshmen "bystanders" are not the rapists, or the ones giving SHAPE training, because they have advocated against harassment and assault. They are the ones in between, the ones who might be in a position to intervene and save a shipmate from a terrible ordeal.

Laura Schneider, one of 32 students who pair up to give the five annual hour-long seminars to groups of 40 of their peers, said she could see the training working already in herself.

"I didn't ever think I had a problem or that I was biased against women, but I've come to the realization that I've let things slip when I should have stepped in," said Schneider, 20, a senior from Portland, Ore. Now, the nasty jokes and negative comments about women don't go unnoticed, she said.

"I just kind of have this check in the back of my mind now. When I hear something that before I probably would have let go, now I think twice. Maybe I'll say that's not the best joke to be telling. ... And through having those thoughts continuously, it changes behaviors."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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