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Politics, Elections and Government

Avila Students Hear From Sen. McCaskill About Sexual Assault

Laura Ziegler

Avila University students said a meeting with Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill Wednesday afternoon taught them important things about the definition of sexual assault, what their school was doing to combat it and how to involve law enforcement in the event of an attack.

With the national spotlight on the issue of sexual violence on campuses, McCaskill has been touring Missouri schools to discuss pending legislation she has co-sponsored on the issue.

Joycelyn Jones, president of the senior class at Avila, said Avila feels safe and secure but it’s important for students to know their rights.

“I believe we should take a stance and be the voice, the connection, for what we learned today to the rest of the student body,” Jones says.

Standing by her side was Karis Pruitt, vice president of the Black Student Union at Avila. She said campus culture normalizes sexual behavior in a way that blurs the line between what’s an acceptable interaction and sexual violence.

“Football players go by and slap each others butts and nobody thinks anything of it until one football player gets out of hand and touches somebody and makes them feel a certain type of way," Pruitt says.

She says peer pressure still plays a role in the epidemic of non-reporting on campuses, and students feel they'll be judged or ostracized for coming forward with a complaint.

"I’m not gonna say anything because of how I’ll be looked at when word gets out," Pruitt says referring to a common sentiment among students. "They're an athlete, and such and such."

Perhaps even more compelling than peer pressure, Pruitt says students fear if they report an incident they could  lose their financial support.

“If word gets around that you were out doing something that is socially frowned upon and that gets back to the people who have been giving you the scholarship to attend school, that can impact ... the rest of your career," Pruitt says.

Sen. McCaskill heard from students, area college officials, and law enforcement at the session. She says she learned some new things, such as that students knew little about anti-discrimination efforts on campus. When she asked which students knew how Title IX works – the federal law that prohibits discrimination in education on basis of sex – no one raised a hand. That concerns Sen. McCaskill.

“Unfortunately, most of this generation sees Law and Order (television episodes) as how they relate to the criminal justice system,” McCaskill says. “In a victims mind, she sees a cross examination on the stand, being called a liar.” She told the students the television drama doesn't reflect reality.

The senator said The Campus Safety And Accountability Act is a response to what she learned as she researched campus violence — that 40 percent of the schools investigated hadn't done an investigation into a sexual assault complaint in five years.

The gathering at Avila came the same day Kansas University security officials released information on the arrest of two rape suspects in different incidents in a KU dorm. Officials say the allegations occurred on the same day but are unrelated to the recent temporary suspension of the Kappa Sigma fraternity.

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