Beyond the red

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Beyond the red

The Pitt News explores the dangers of the Red Zone, which occurs within the early Autumn months.  Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

The Pitt News explores the dangers of the Red Zone, which occurs within the early Autumn months. Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

The Pitt News explores the dangers of the Red Zone, which occurs within the early Autumn months. Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

The Pitt News explores the dangers of the Red Zone, which occurs within the early Autumn months. Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

By Dale Shoemaker / News Editor

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On fall weekends, while the air is fresh and still invitingly warm, the same scene rolls.

Speakers up, drinks poured and best clothes on, Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University students pour into South Oakland homes and bars for evenings of fun.

While the music and students’ spirits are up, research shows the rate of sexual violence rises too.

Two separate studies — from 2007 and 2008, respectively — show that nearly half of sexual assaults on college campuses will happen during the first six to eight weeks of the fall semester, a time the 2008 study labels “the red zone.”

Title IX coordinators at Pittsburgh’s two largest universities, though, shy from adopting the term. Rather, Katie Pope from Pitt and Holly Hippensteel from Carnegie Mellon have said sexual violence is a year-round problem.

And although the studies show sexual violence on college campus goes up nationally during the red zone, the coordinators said they don’t have the numbers to back up the trend locally.

After publishing the results of a 126-page campus climate survey from the Association of American Universities in September, Pitt administrators have said they are not letting the red zone label alter their focus from eliminating sexual assault on campus.

Though university administrators and other professionals are united in their fight against sexual violence, the red zone — both the label and the spike — divides them.

The red zone

According to “Risk of Unwanted Sex for College Women: Evidence for a Red Zone,” — the 2008 study published in the Journal of American College Health — the red zone is the time during the academic year, usually the first six to eight weeks, when sexual violence rates peak.

Both the 2007 study — which the U.S. Department of Justice funded — and the 2008 study said the red zone can last from the beginning of the school year until mid-October or all the way to Thanksgiving.

According to the 2008 study, a college student has a 0.4 percent chance of being assaulted on any given day during the red zone, as compared to a 0.23 percent risk throughout the first six months of the academic year.

According to the 2007 study, nearly 50 percent of forced sexual assaults at colleges happened from August to November.

Christopher Krebs, now a researcher at the Research Triangle Institute, led the Department of Justice’s sexual assault on college campuses study, and said while his study never uses the phrase “red zone,” the “data suggests that the red zone exists.”

“It’s an exciting time and a fun time, but it’s also a vulnerable time,” Krebs said. “I think it’s real and I think it makes sense.”

Other schools outside of Pittsburgh do refer to this period as the red zone.

West Virginia University and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania dedicate sections of their websites to educating students about the red zone.

IUP spokesperson Michelle Fryling, said the school includes information about the red zone on its website because it is part of the school’s “aggressive” education program to curb sexual violence.

Colleen Harshbarger, director of WVU’s office of wellness and health promotion, which is in charge of sexual assault education, did not return a request for comment.

On Pittsburgh’s campuses

At Pittsburgh’s two largest campuses, Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University, neither said it has enough data on sexual assaults to show the red zone exists.

Pope, who Pitt hired as its first full-time Title IX coordinator this semester, said she doesn’t want to diminish the occurrence of sexual assault on campus, but also doesn’t want to squeeze students into a statistic.

“We don’t have the data to back [the red zone] up,” Pope said. “While I don’t want to, in any way, negate someone’s experience, I never want someone to think, ‘Well this didn’t happen to me my first semester so it really didn’t happen.’ I never want someone to take a trend and apply it to them.”

Next door, Hippensteel, CMU’s Title IX coordinator, said her office doesn’t have numbers to prove it has a red zone — mainly because victims don’t always report right away — but said she does believe it still exists.

“I do think it’s a reality,” Hippensteel said. “I do think more incidents occur but that doesn’t translate to an increase in reports.”

What causes the possible spike in incidents, however, is not clear.

“Our hypothesis is that folks are new to campus and they’re figuring out the social scene and going out more than during the year when there are more academic stressors,” Hippensteel said.

According to Krebs, the data only shows the problem exists, not how to solve it.

“We don’t know enough to why it keeps happening, it’s something we keep struggling with,” Krebs said. “Our research is more trying to understand the problem and the magnitude of the problem. These are school specific situations that need to be measured and understood.”

On our campus

At Pitt, 21 percent of women, 6.2 percent of men and 19.6 percent of TGQN — transgender men and women, genderqueer, gender nonconforming and questioning individuals — have had a nonconsensual sexual experience during their four years on campus, figures that came from the recent AAU survey.

Pitt released its results of the widely publicized AAU survey — which aimed to measure the sexual assault climate on 28 colleges and universities — on Sept. 21. While the survey gave an overall picture of the prevalence and occurrence of sexual assault on campus, it did not break incidents down by month, leaving the question of the red zone unanswered.

Before the survey, Pitt measured the rate of sexual assault on campus through its crime and safety log, which the Jeanne Clery Act requires of all colleges and universities. In 2014, Pitt police recorded 20 reported rapes, though it didn’t break that number down by month.

An unproductive label

The researchers of the 2008 study noted the potential harm of labeling the spike they found, as it could lessen the perceived risk of sexual violence throughout the rest of the year.

“Theoretically, education about the classic red zone may place women at higher risk during lower-risk time periods if they perceive those times to be relatively safe,” the authors wrote.

Pitt and CMU’s Title IX coordinators said the label was unhelpful at the least.

“It can make people defensive. It can make men defensive, it can make women fearful. It doesn’t help,” Hippensteel, CMU’s Title IX coordinator, said.

Though its data in the AAU survey provided a stark reality of the Oakland campus, other Pitt administrators, including interim vice provost and dean of students Kenyon Bonner, shy from attaching the red zone label to the first part of the fall semester.

“Even the use of the term ‘red zone’ is not the most appropriate reference to sexual assault,” Bonner said. “It’s probably not sensitive.”

Similarly, Pitt’s former sexual assault coordinator, Mary Koch-Ruiz, who retired to coordinating only part-time earlier this month, said the label is not productive.

Koch-Ruiz did not return multiple voicemail messages asking for interview but said in an email through a Pitt spokesperson the red zone label trivializes a serious issue.

“I do not think the label is productive because it minimizes a serious issue,” Koch-Ruiz said.

While sexual violence does spike during September, it is only one month that sees a peak in sexual violence, Koch-Ruiz said. Other months, like February, when students arrive back on campus after winter recess, and April, as the academic year winds down, also see increases in sexual violence, Koch-Ruiz said.

To Pope, Pitt’s Title IX coordinator, the red zone label ignores these other months.

“I’m not saying these reports aren’t coming in [during the red zone]. I don’t think we should be focusing on the six weeks, I think we need to look at the whole of the year,” Pope said.

Fighting sexual assault year-round

At the same time Pope, Bonner and others at Pitt reject the red zone label, they are redoubling their efforts to prevent sexual violence on campus, especially among freshmen — the group most at risk for sexual violence.

“Do I think we need to give first-year students a whole lot of education and a whole lot of resources? Absolutely,” Pope said. “But I never want anybody to think what happened to them doesn’t count because it wasn’t in a certain time period.”

Overall, Pitt’s plan to combat sexual assault is simple. Raise awareness, educate faculty, staff and students and change the culture.

Formed last April, Pitt’s Sexual Assault Task Force is breaking the AAU data down into six categories — alcohol and drugs, increasing reporting, marginalized groups, education, support for men, and support for faculty and staff — that each of six committees will address.

By next year, the task force will introduce new education programs for students, new training for faculty and staff and a plan to make sure victims get the help they need.

“At the end of the day we have to change the culture,” Bonner said. “The students sort of told us what the culture is like … now our job is to try to change that culture.”

Since the U.S. Department of Education issued its “Dear Colleague” letter to higher education administrators — which brought awareness to the issue of sexaul assault on campuses — in April 2011, Pope said universities across the country are taking sexual violence more seriously.

The biggest change, according to Pope, is that people are not as afraid to talk about sexual assault when it happens.

“I won’t say we’ve seen the culture-change we want to see but it’s certainly brought the issue to the table,” Pope said.

Red zone in the city

On the city-scale, Pittsburgh sees an uptick in sexual violence in the first few months of fall, according to Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, in part because of the number of universities in the area.

“We’re a county with 10 colleges,” PAAR executive director Alison Hall said. “You can certainly draw a correlation.”

In 2014, PAAR helped 3,160 people in Allegheny County, according to Hall. From the beginning of August to the end of October, PAAR saw 382 people. Compared to the number of people PAAR saw in July and August last year, Hall said, the organization saw about 20 to 25 percent more people in September and October.

Overall, data is the one thing that can prove — or at least suggest — the existence of a red zone.

But even some organizations that serve all of Pittsburgh, like Pittsburgh’s Center for Victims, only track the number of people they see annually, not month by month.

The center does not, however, see the existence of a definitive red zone mainly because victims often don’t report an assault directly after it happens, Danielle Hanna, the center’s community engagement assistant said.

“There’s a lot of stigma behind it in college. There’s different stigmas whether you were drinking, whether you want it. Stigmas make healing even harder,” Hannah said.

Causes and solutions

Generally, sexual assault experts agree that an influx of new students on campus, more parties and increased consumption of alcohol cause upswings in sexual violence.

To solve the problem at Pitt, Pope said making resources transparent is most important so students who are victimized report their assaults right away and can immediately begin healing.

Getting students to report sexual violence as soon as it happens, and making sure victims know what resources are available to them is one part of Pitt’s plan to change its campus. Also part of the plan is educating others in bystander intervention training and respecting others.

In the end, no one is quick to embrace the red zone label, just like no one denies sexual violence is a problem on college campuses.  Red zone or not, though, professionals in Pittsburgh and around the country say colleges need a culture change, one that shuns sexual violence and one that encourages reporting and healing.

“When the environment is such that we’re encouraging students to report it, we’re talking about the resources, we’re trying to eliminate the stigma around it, hopefully we begin to change the culture,” Pope said.

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