Eighty-four rapes were reported on New Jersey college campuses. That’s according to federal data for 2014, the most recent year for which hard numbers are available. The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault says one in five women is sexually assaulted in college. New Jersey’s new task force on campus sexual assault has met for the first time. The CEO of the Bergen County YWCA Helen Archontou is on that task force. She spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.
Williams: Thanks for being with us. What was outlined at the meeting? What are the goals?
Archontou: Well our goals are really to carry forth what’s in the legislation and that is to evaluate what’s happening on our college campuses currently, to look at the legislation that is out there and what’s currently being proposed. To look at some of the best practices that are happening around the country and to put forward a report to give some guidance and direction to strengthen our initiatives here in New Jersey.
Williams: It’s always been said that you can’t legislate attitudes and there is what’s been called a culture of rape, a rape culture, on campuses. How do you work around that?
Archontou: Well, I mean at this point we have children that have grown up and are young adults and are in college. But the real way to work on that is to start doing prevention programs and education programs when children are younger and in elementary school. But once they’re in college, it’s important to have programs like initiatives that the YWCA does that comes in and educates and normalizes how, you know, takes rape culture and tries to dispel the myth and, you know, bring people back to a normalized state of understanding of what is OK and what’s not OK behavior.
Williams: You were in the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office of Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit. What did you learn from that that you can bring to solutions here?
Archontou: Well, I think I have a tremendous understanding from that experience about working with individuals that are survivors of such experiences, and what they carry with them and how important it really is for us to do right by them and come up with the right policies to protect our communities and the citizens of our state from having to go through any of the experiences that they did. The other piece I think, which is key, is really from that experience is understanding the different bureaucracies that get involved with survivors, once there is an allegation of sexual assault, and trying to help keep those bureaucracies working together and not at odds from each other, because sometimes although we all have the same end goal, our processes are very different. And so I think that’s why this task force is so important that has been created here in New Jersey because it gives us an opportunity to really look at all the different entities, law enforcement, the campus community, advocate groups, everyone who really is in existence to help support anyone who is a survivor of a sexual assault as well as, you know, try to keep the offenders away, and so that they are not able to offend any further.
Williams: But, when there’s a light sentence, for instance in the Brock Turner case, how does that work against what you’re trying to achieve?
Archontou: Well, the challenge of that case obviously in particular is that it really sends a message to anyone who has not reported a case yet, or anyone who is a recent, you know, recently has been sexually assaulted, because they look at that experience and say, “Well, if that’s all that my offender is going to be punished for what is done, is it worth the agony that I may have to go through to get to that point?” And so, I mean, I think it really sends a message, you know. All of us who have been tirelessly working as advocates to try to change the perception and educate the professionals that are doing this work, it definitely gave us all a pause, but we are still committed and we’ll continue forward.
Williams: You have at the Y what you call a “healing space” for victims of sexual assault. Can that be taken elsewhere and implemented elsewhere?
Archontou: Well our healing space program, which is a sexual violence resource center, is the county designated sexual violence resource center. They exist everywhere in New Jersey, every county has one. The wonderful thing about our program and programs like ours really has to do with the programs that we put out in the community to try to do everything from support individuals once they have been faced with being sexually assaulted, as well as trying to help the community have a better understanding and be educated on these issues. We have programs like most recently we were able to launch an app that anyone can download by going to their app stores, both on Droid and Apple, and that gives an opportunity that anyone who is struggling with what to do after they’ve been sexually assaulted can get information on their fingertips confidentially and in the comfort of, you know, at their own pace and at their own time to be able to look and figure out how to get to their resources. Whether it’s counseling, whether it’s to get to law enforcement to make a report. I think programs like that, programs like our outreach efforts, that when we go into communities and try to educate professionals who are working with sexual assault victims to understand what trauma does and how trauma impacts someone. Being able to talk about their abuse is really key and important, as well as just initiatives to get the word out that programs like ours exist. We know that the statistics are one thing and that has to do with who reports, but there’s a lot of people out there who haven’t felt a comfort level to report, and we need to let them know about services so that they can come forward when they’re ready.