UConn Sexual Assault Awareness Rally

Students listen to speakers talk about their experiences during a sexual assault awareness rally on UConn's campus in September 2011. (Bettina Hansen / Hartford Courant / September 30, 2011)

Halee Bazer, a freshman at Quinnipiac University, said she has heard about the wave of sexual assault lawsuits sweeping college campuses and plans to be cautious about parties, never go anywhere alone and call campus security for escorts if needed.

"Yeah, I'm like very paranoid," Bazer said Thursday as she organized her mostly pink gear in her new dorm room. "But, like, campus security makes me feel better about it."

With the heightened focus on sexual assault on college campuses in the past year, many freshmen and their parents — even at Quinnipiac, which has top ratings for safety — are thinking and talking about their concerns.

Some college and university officials say that freshmen are particularly at risk for unwanted sex or rape during the first couple of months of the school year — a period of time that some call "the red zone."

"I've heard some male students refer to this period as 'hunting season,'" said Dana Bolger, the co-founder and co-director of Know Your IX, a group that assists college women filing sexual assault complaints under federal Title IX legal provisions. "Perpetrators know that students just beginning their college experience are at their most vulnerable; they haven't developed a support network yet and are just trying to fit in, make friends and find the library."

A U.S. Justice Department report says that the "first few days of the freshmen year are the riskiest, limiting the value of any rape prevention programs that begin after that." A 2007 Campus Sexual Assault study similarly found that "women who are victimized during their college career are most likely to be victimized early on in their college tenure."

A 2008 study published in the Journal of American College Health also found "substantial" evidence of the existence of a red zone during the first few months of freshmen year, when reports of unwanted sex or rape are higher. Other times of the school year, such as a homecoming weekend or fraternity and sorority rush may also be high-risk, but the study cautioned institutions not to give students the false impression that a campus is safe the rest of the year.

Testing Limits

College officials have long known that the first few months of school can be a time of testing limits, of too much drinking and partying. For decades they have taken steps to educate freshmen about the risks of such behaviors, provided orientation programs aimed at connecting students to productive activities and familiarizing them with the services on campus.

Those programs have intensified and expanded, with many universities presenting online videos and quizzes on alcohol, sexual assault and safety over the summer and then reinforcing those messages with presentations, interactive performances and more videos when students arrive on campus.

"Every college is on high alert for the first year," said Eileen Stone, the University of Connecticut's assistant director of wellness and prevention. "We know that this is a risky time, so we try to help the students navigate their way."

Kerry Patton, director of counseling services at Quinnipiac, said: "I think the goal is to get them involved in different healthy experiences. Students who are involved in things tend to make better decisions."

Younger students may be hesitant to speak up or object to behavior that makes them uncomfortable if they think everyone is doing it and that it's normal, said Laura Lockwood, director of Trinity's Women & Gender Resource Action Center. The stereotypes that "everyone drinks at college and rape is inevitable ... have to be dismantled, as well as the rape myth that girls deserve it if they are drunk or dressed scantily — that sort of 'blame the victims' culture."

Fred Alford, dean of students at Trinity College, said that students' misuse of alcohol has been a serious concern in the 30 years he's worked with college students, and that the focus on preventing sexual assault has intensified in recent years.

That's partly because federal guidelines were released in 2011 to clarify and strengthen the obligations colleges and universities have to prevent and respond to campus sexual assault.

Earlier this year, amid a wave of Title IX complaints nationwide, a White House task force released a report on the issue, and the state passed legislation requiring colleges to improve prevention efforts and assistance programs for victims. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal has also been holding roundtables on college campuses to raise awareness about sexual assault and get feedback on federal legislation introduced in July to combat the problem.

"The bright light that the federal government has put on it has created a better network of information," Alford said, heightening sensitivity and reinforcing "the sense that colleges better pay attention."

Just last month, the University of Connecticut agreed to a $1.3 million settlement in a lawsuit filed by five current and former UConn students who filed a Title IX complaint, charging that the university mishandled their cases when they were raped or sexually assaulted.

Reducing The Risk

Most colleges and universities now present extensive orientation programs early during freshmen year to educate students — male and female — about alcohol, sexual assault, safety concerns and repercussions for criminal activity, and many have expanded training refreshers in the later years.