Fall classes, coeds - and safety - at HWS

By Julie Sherwood jsherwood@messengerpostmedia.com
Posted Aug. 31, 2014 @ 12:42 pm
Updated Sep 1, 2014 at 9:59 AM 

It was a bittersweet ride home to Naples from Cornell University for Laurel and Robert Hotchkiss last weekend. They had just said goodbye to their daughter, Halie Hotchkiss, a 2014 Naples Central School grad who’s now a first-year college student.

Mixed feeling prevailed: excitement, sadness, anticipation - all natural and all shared by thousands of families across the Finger Lakes region and beyond sending children off to college for the first time. And along with the usual issues - expenses, change in family dynamics, scheduling visits and so forth - campus safety this year is tops on many parents’ minds.

Prompted by the high-profile case of an alleged sexual assault of a freshman last academic year at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, parents, students and college personnel are talking more openly than ever about rape, sexual assault and other forms of violence on campus.

“We talked,” said Laurel Hotchkiss, whose daughter Halie, is the oldest of two and is going to Cornell for biological engineering. Laurel said that while the HWS case was close to home and widely publicized, it is one of many reports nationally dealing with dangers on college campuses and elsewhere. “In today’s world you have to talk about these things,” Laurel said.

The family discussed the importance of staying safe and being smart about decisions and behavior, from not walking alone at night in certain areas to staying away from risky social situations, Laurel said.

Coming from a small, socially close-knit community like Naples can make moving to a large campus or into a large city a particularly challenging transition, she noted.

“The more information you can send with our kids, the better,” said Laurel. “It is a great thing that campuses are doing more to raise awareness and help protect students.”

Feeling safe

At the end of her junior year at Red Jacket, 2014 Manchester-Shortsville graduate Ellie Smith got a merit scholarship to attend Hobart and William Smith. It didn’t take long to discover it was the place for her. From the first visit, she said, “I felt at home on campus, walking on the quad.”

Last weekend, planning this past Thursday’s move-in day on campus, Ellie was at home in Shortsville with her parents, Stephen and Kelly, and brother, Stephen, 15.

“Of course I am anxious, nervous and excited,” said Ellie, who heads to HWS as a biology major with a goal of becoming a medical doctor. “It is a whole new life on my own.”

Like the Hotchkiss family, the Smiths talked about campus safety. Ellie said she welcomes the spotlight on such issues and all that HWS has done to raise awareness and safety on campus. “I feel very safe going to Hobart,” Ellie said.

Ellie’s mom, Kelly, also said she is glad for all that is being done to address campus safety openly and aggressively, at HWS and at other campuses. Those concerns are “not isolated to Hobart,” she said. But knowing all that HWS has done and is in the process of doing, “we are confident,” Kelly said.

Pulling together

As debate raged in July over details in the New York Times’ account of the alleged sexual assault at HWS, focus turned to efforts already underway to improve programs and policies on the Geneva campus.

The grassroots Coalition for Concerned Students, formed on May 1, is a student-led group made up of members of William Smith Women's Collective, Hobart for Equality and Respect, PRIDE Alliance, Change Starts Here, William Smith Congress, Hobart Student Government, varsity athletes and other concerned students.

“We rallied together to change institutional policies regarding sexual assault, to change campus culture, and to fight for more administrative transparency,” the coalition’s mission statement states.

An online petition calling for a long list of changes garnered more than 3,000 signatures through Change.org (http://chn.ge/1zOLCfO) and was the beginning of a groundswell of activity related to campus safety. From HWS President Mark Gearan, who backed improvements and transparency, to faculty, staff, alumni and students, communication - including face-to-face meetings - and outreach exploded.

Ryan Mullaney, a Hobart junior who helped craft the petition, said in July from the HWS campus that media coverage of the alleged assault case served to put pressure on the colleges’ president and senior staff to take action. Regardless of where one stands on the allegations and the New York Times report, Mullaney considers that a positive development.

Among the actions that have taken place: a revised, more clearly stated sexual violence policy; an expanded, more active Title IX program office; strengthened ties with resources such as National Sexual Assault Hotline, Safe Harbors of the Finger Lakes and the HWS Counseling Center; and a HWS sexual assault hotline run by and for students round-the-clock to be up and running within the first few weeks of the semester.

Students will notice “a great energy” on campus due to the dialogue and activities surrounding campus safety, said Robb Flowers, vice president for Student Affairs at HWS.

“There is a dialogue that addresses cultural issues that are not unique to HWS,” said Flowers. But HWS can be a leader and serve as a model for other campuses, he said.

Flowers also mentioned a commitment by HWS fraternities that have stated in writing they will not host any social gatherings to further assure campus safety, Flowers said.

For new students, orientation will include a portion dedicated to the topic of sexual assault and related issues with a theater performance and discussion on Saturday, Aug. 30.

Associate Professor of Theatre Heather May is head of Mosaic NY, a new theater company that will do a performance that deals with the issues of rape and sexual assault along with themes related to healthy, positive, consensual sexual relationships.

“We want to honor the fact that sex can be complicated and confusing to people,” May said.

The performance, written and produced as a collaborative effort with May and 12 returning students, will be followed by discussions with first-year students. The performance will be done as well for the public on campus on Wednesday, Sept. 3, at 4:30 p.m. in the colleges’ Bartlett Theatre.

Mosaic NY will continue to produce theatrical events all year long with a mission, said May. “We create our performance pieces with the intention of promoting dialogue, developing community, celebrating diversity and encouraging the active pursuit of social justice,” May said.

Mark Pitifer, a first-year HWS student from Geneva, said he is enthused about the open discussion and activities taking place.

“When problems happen you fix them and go on to do the best you can to make sure they don’t happen again,” said Pitifer, who is majoring in economics and politics.

Flowers said he is heartened by enrollment at HWS, both for first-year students and those returning. Total enrollment is on target and the incoming-class enrollment exceeds the colleges’ target of 650, Flowers said.

“A lot of places will say they come out stronger after something like this, and are doing better,” said Flowers. “We are really doing it.”

Support from Washington

Statistics released by the U.S. Department of Education reported nearly 5,000 forcible sex offenses at colleges and universities across the nation in 2012. New York-based colleges and universities accounted for 365 of those cases. In Washington, where agreement on any issue is rare these days, legislation that has genuine bipartisan support is the Campus Accountability and Safety Act.

The bill strengthens accountability and transparency for colleges and universities, sets stiff penalties for a school’s non-compliance, requires training for on-campus personnel and gives students access to confidential advisors to use as a resource.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a backer of the bill, describes it as reversing “ the incentives that currently reward keeping sexual assault in the shadows.”

Last week, ahead of the new school year, U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, met with student-athletes and student mentors at Keuka College in Keuka Park, Yates County, to talk about awareness and prevention of sexual assault.

Reed and Keuka College President Jorge Diaz-Herrera watched Keuka’s fall sports teams practice on the Jephson Community Athletic Complex before about 100 student-athletes, resident assistants and student mentors gathered with Reed for the discussion.

Reed, a former All-American Division III student athlete, shared his support for the Campus Accountability and Safety Act adding his personal thoughts. In a press release on the event, Reed was cited as telling students: “I remember my days as a competitive swimmer in college and between balancing school work and practice, they were busy days. We can all benefit though, from making more time to talk about ways to generate a cultural shift and send the message that sexual assault in any form will not be tolerated. We can reverse the current trend, better care for students and make college campuses safer.”

Earlier this month, Reed announced his co-sponsorship of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act in the House of Representatives. The act has the support in the Senate of Gillibrand, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and others. Reed also held discussions at the State University of New York at Fredonia, and a roundtable at Ithaca College with representatives from Cornell University, Corning Community College and area district attorney’s offices to listen to ways to better protect students from sexual assault on campus.

“Advocating against sexual assault needs to be everyone’s priority, it’s all of our job to stand up for what’s right,” Reed stated.


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