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SCREAM sounds alarm about campus assaults

SCREAM sounds alarm about campus assaults

GAINESVILLE – The statistics tell the bleakest part of the story.

One in five college women will be the victim of a completed or attempted rape during college. And 90 percent of rapes on college campuses are perpetrated by serial rapists. 

SCREAM Theater performers dramatize a date rape scene at UF Auditorium
SCREAM Theater performers take the stage at the University of Florida auditorium to dramatize a fictional sexual assault case typical of college campuses. Photos from Gator Wesley Foundation.

It is a narrative that founders of SCREAM Theater want to change by creating opportunities for conversation about the realities and myths of interpersonal violence.

"This is a community issue," said Brady Root, prevention education coordinator at the Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance at Rutgers University.

"(People) should all want to stand up and say it's not OK. It makes survivors more confident to come forward to say this has happened."

Last week, six students from Rutgers stepped on a University of Florida (UF) auditorium stage to play out a fictional sexual assault fueled by alcohol and perpetrated by an older male student against a female freshman.

The performance was sponsored by the Gator Wesley Foundation, a United Methodist ministry serving UF and Santa Fe College in Gainesville. Rev. David Fuquay, director of Higher Education and Campus Ministries for the Florida Conference, said the event was a creative way to address a widespread problem on college campuses, and he hopes other campus ministries will take note.

In the 30-minute skit, Ryan pushed Jess to drink more alcohol than she wanted and came on as if he were a sweet, endearing guy. He had been stalking Jess for days, waiting to get her alone and drunk. Ignoring Jess' pleas to stop, Ryan raped her.

She was a ready victim for Ryan, who boasted about seeking out young women like Jess, a newly arrived college student in her freshman year.

"A lot of this is about the undetected rapist finding the people they think are most vulnerable and even grooming them into making this possible," Root said.

She oversees SCREAM (Students Challenging Realities and Educating Against Myths) Theater, an interactive, improvisational program that seeks to create community-wide conversations about interpersonal violence. Founded in 1991, the program annually stages about 80 performances that reach approximately 10,000 people at colleges, high schools, churches and other organizations nationwide.

"We believe if people aren't talking about this, nothing will change," Root said. "There is a really high possibility in our lives that we are going to know someone affected by (rape), either as a survivor or a perpetrator. You never know what sort of position you will be put in." 

SCREAM troupe from Rutgers pose with gator statue at UF
Members of SCREAM Theater from Rutgers University tour the University of Florida campus during their visit to draw awareness to the frequency of sexual assault among college students.

About 75 people watched the SCREAM performance at UF. Admission was free and open to the public. The event's cosponsors were the Campus Multi-Faith Cooperative, Multi-Cultural and Diversity Affairs, Dean of Students Office/Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution and Gator Well/STRIVE. The Alachua County Victim Services and Rape Crisis Center had a display table outside the auditorium.

SCREAM Theater skits focus on sexual assault, domestic and dating violence, stalking, sexual harassment and bullying. While most sexual assaults are against women, one in 33 men also will be victims at some point, usually before reaching college age, Root said.

Gator Wesley members saw the Rutgers' group perform during a United Methodist training seminar in New York and booked the UF event for the start of the fall semester, a time when studies show freshmen and sophomore students are at greatest risk for sexual assault.

"We thought it would be great for University of Florida," said Rev. Narcie Jeter, the foundation's director, who also invited church youth leaders and high school students.

"It gave me a lot of information and completely opened my eyes to what happens," said Jon Soule, 16, already a freshman at UF.

"There are a lot of victims that need help and counseling, even if they don't say they do. There are a lot of perpetrators out there who will do anything to get what they want."

Root said studies show 42 percent of survivors never tell a single person about their sexual assaults.

"That's really the piece of it that is the most disheartening," she said. "We really need to be a country where people can feel OK to talk about it if they want to."

The skit also raised ethical and moral issues about the lack of bystander intervention and the acceptance by both men and women of profane, objectifying language directed at women. 

One young woman who walked in on the depicted rape left the room without helping because she thought it wasn't any of her business. A friend couldn't accept that Jess didn't want to immediately seek medical help and file a police report.

At the end of the skit, audience members explored alternative behaviors by asking questions of the actors, who stayed in character.

"I don't think it should be up to the victim to keep it from happening," said Valerie Mejia, a 17-year-old high school student. "It's very eye-opening to what can happen."

Her friend, Sara Smith, 16, is a certified self-defense instructor who knows assault survivors.

"They don't talk about this in high school often enough," she said.

Root said high school discussions on sexual assaults, if they happen at all, are usually about 10 minutes in a health class.

However, college officials across the country are facing increasing pressure to meet federal Title IX requirements, which more often have targeted equal treatment for college female athletes. But the law also covers sexual assaults and harassment.

In 2011, the Civil Rights division of the U.S. Department of Education put schools on notice to take steps to fully investigate and respond to complaints. Currently more than 70 colleges and universities are under federal investigation, including Florida State University.

"We see more colleges around the country having to step up and take a stand and not sweep it under the rug," Root said. "They can't just take the easy way out and let someone write an essay saying, 'I'm sorry.’”

-- Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.