‘The Hunting Ground’ sparks conversation and commitment to creating a safe campus

Portland State students, faculty and staff attended a screening of the critically acclaimed documentary, The Hunting Ground. The Oct. 20 event was a collaborative effort by nine campus organizations.

Jocelyn Wagman, chair of the student alliance for sexual safety, is excited that sexual assault awareness and education is growing throughout the campus.

“I’m really excited that we’re here doing this today, because not only are we raising awareness and educating ourselves about sexual assault but this is a prime opportunity to expand the dialogue between students and staff and administrators about how to prevent and respond to sexual assault at PSU,” Wagman said.

The film exposes the nation-wide failure of colleges and universities to adequately and appropriately respond to incidents of rape and sexual violence, including cover-ups, victim-blaming and outright neglect.

In addition to expert insights and many first-person accounts, the film follows Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, two rape survivors, as they seek justice by filing a Title IX complaint with the federal Department of Education against their school, University of North Carolina.

Title IX is a federal civil rights law passed in 1972 that requires gender equity in all educational programs that receive federal funding. This protects victims of sexual harassment, sexual battery, sexual assault and rape, who are effectively prevented from educational opportunity as a result.

The fact that more than 16 percent of college women are assaulted on campus, as the film claims, leads many to classify this problem as an epidemic. And women are not the only victims. The film notes that men are often underrepresented because the cultural stigma and shame attached to being a victim is more severe for men, leading many cases to go unreported.

The failure of institutions to respond is characterized in the film as a “PR management problem” by Caroline Heldman, associate professor of politics at Occidental College.

Because schools are selling a brand, it’s in their interest to silence survivors, lest potential students and their families be dissuaded from purchasing an education there. The film also explains how athletic departments and fraternities—other huge sources of revenue and alumni support—contribute to suppressing incidents and protect accused perpetrators.

After the screening, Wagman and Cynthia Gomez, director of the cultural resource centers, moderated a panel discussion of six people from various parts of the PSU campus. They took questions from the audience that were written down anonymously on provided yellow cards. This was one of many gestures during the event to protect anonymity and create a safe space within which to discuss the difficult topic.

Julie Caron, the Title IX coordinator, explained why consent videos aren’t mandatory the first day of classes. They are in the process of having a new prevention coordinator come to campus, which she hopes will lead to more robust prevention programming. But until then there is a mandatory Safe Campus Module on D2L that includes information about what consent is and university policies regarding discrimination and assault, as well as resources to support those affected.

“We have almost 30,000 students enrolled and most of them are non-residential,” said Adrienne Graf, the interpersonal violence program lead advocate at the Women’s Resource Center. “That’s an ongoing conversation about how do we capture such a large, spread out group of people?”

The film inevitably raised questions about how PSU differs from the schools in the movie.

“We are the only university in the state that has a dedicated sexual assault detective,” said Phillip Zerzan, director of public safety. “That is their job, to respond to sexual assault investigations.”

According to Zerzan, this person receives extensive training. Graf, who has been in her role for over seven years, is impressed with PSU’s consistent support.

“I think it’s remarkable that we’re invested in advocacy, and we were having this conversation with our administrators before we were federally obligated to do that,” Graf said.

Harriet Cutler, a PSU student and survivor of sexual assault, affirmed Graf’s pride in PSU’s support system.

“One of the most difficult things was feeling alone on this campus,” Cutler said. “So having an advocate and being able to talk to Adrienne was huge in terms of feeling like not only is someone listening to me, but someone professional is listening to me and they’re going to get me some kind of help.”

Given that this issue is a cultural phenomenon, Domanic Thomas, director of conduct and community standards in the dean of student life office, uses the analogy of drunk driving to explain how we can collectively change the culture. It starts with the students empowering themselves and interrupting situations before they get started.

“It’s going to be students who are there,” Thomas said.

Just as it is now the norm to stop an intoxicated friend from driving home, the same thing needs to happen.

“Can we do that around sexual assault?” Thomas said. “Individuals talking to each other and holding them accountable? That’s where it starts.”