The sexual assault epidemic, part one: Austin Wilkerson and flaws in CU system

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Contact CU Independent Opinion Editor Emily McPeak at emily.mcpeak@colorado.edu. 

In March 2014, eight months after starting her freshman year at CU, a young woman’s life was changed forever. On a night she will likely look back on for the rest of her life with nothing but contempt, this woman was raped by a fellow student who had told her friends that he would take care of her after she had too much to drink at a party. Now, more than two years later, this young woman has been robbed of the opportunity for her perpetrator to face justice for his crimes.

This past May, former CU student Austin Wilkerson was found guilty of raping a fellow buff. The sentence he received for this crime, delivered last week by Boulder District Judge Patrick Butler, was shockingly lenient– a jail work release and probation instead of up to a lifetime in jail.

The victim, who spoke at the trial about the impact the rape has had and continues to have on her life, specifically asked Butler to send Wilkerson to jail. Instead, when Butler chose a sentence that would allow for rehabilitation, the criminal now being called the Brock Turner of CU will have the ability to move on with his life. Sadly, this case is not unique. In fact, there is a tendency for our country to fail victims of sexual assault by not treating their assaulters with the appropriate level of harshness.

Our nation is in the grips of a sexual assault epidemic. According to a White House study released in April 2014, one in five female students are sexually assaulted while in college. This should come at no shock to students at CU, given that 28 percent of females and six percent of males at the school have reported experiencing sexual assault while attending the university.

The university is aware that sexual misconduct is a major problem at the school. Last fall they began the process of surveying students to gain a better understanding of the issue, and the first phase of results from this survey were released in February. In a letter to the student body that accompanied these results, Chancellor Phil DiStefano wrote that “we have made tremendous strides in realigning our personnel and process to combat sexual misconduct” and that the survey will “inform and focus” their efforts. However, it is unclear whether the university has done anything that will truly be effective, especially considering the far too lenient punishments rapists like Wilkerson seem receive for their crimes.

The new sexual misconduct protocol is a work in progress, and that is made clear in DiStefano’s carefully worded letter. It is also commendable that the administration has gone so far as to admit there is a major sexual misconduct problem as the school. Yet, as the policies are currently structured, they mirror the point of view Butler took when he decided to treat Wilkerson with mercy that his victim did not receive. Here at CU, just like in the courts, the victim of sexual assault is treated as if they hold some responsibility for the crime committed against them.

CU can always do more to prevent sex assault from ever happening in the first place. In addition to requiring freshman to go through a drug and alcohol safety education course, all students, in a clear and consistent way, should be made aware what does and does not qualify as consent when it comes to sex. It cannot be assumed that all college students know where the line between yes and no lies. Until such education becomes a bookmark of college curriculum, people like Brock Turner and Daniel Ryerson and Austin Wilkerson will continue to justify the crossing of this line, and they will continue to do so successfully.

Efforts at the university level must make up for flaws in the justice system and the ways in which the nation focuses on victim blaming rather than consent-education when it comes to rape. Until we come to our collective senses and find an effective way to mitigate, maybe even eradicate, the sexual assault epidemic, universities like our own must step up and do more.

Emily McPeak

Emily McPeak is an undergraduate student who writes about society and politics. She is studying journalism and political science.

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