Top Oregon Democrats Look To PSU On Campus Sexual Violence

Three of Oregon’s top elected officials — sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici — visited Portland State University on Tuesday to discuss how to reduce sexual violence on college campuses.

But no discussion of sexual assault in the current election cycle could last long without a ringing condemnation of the recently publicized comments from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Wyden confronted Trump’s comments — without naming the GOP hopeful — as an unwelcome normalization of violent sexual behavior by privileged individuals.

“There has been a discussion, in effect, about whether there is some twisted sense of entitlement that would allow powerful males to engage in sexual assault,” Wyden said, his voice getting louder. “Maybe it comes out of the Middle Ages. I don’t know where it comes from, but it is absolutely unacceptable.”

“We have some healing to do as a country, and we can start that right here, right now,” Bonamici said.

One of the leaders of Portland State University’s effort to improve how colleges respond to sexual violence saw a silver lining in the cloud created by Trump’s comments. Vice President of Global Diversity and Inclusion Carmen Suarez said the widespread condemnation showed how American society has evolved. 

“I would submit to you that even five years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to call out the behaviors — we wouldn’t have had the names; we wouldn’t have been able to talk about rape culture,” Suarez said.

“We talk about ‘consent’ and ‘informed consent,’” Suarez continued. “We can even say the words ‘enthusiastic consent’ because of this work we’re all doing together.”

Suarez said she’s been working on issues related to sexual violence for more than 20 years and has seen recent improvements.

The top Oregon Democrats are looking to Portland State to lead the way on improvements across the country.

PSU received a $750,000 federal grant in February aimed at developing a set of policies and practices for universities to follow to reduce sexual assault on campus. Officials call it the creation of a “national model.”

Bonamici, Merkley and Wyden are working on a bill in Congress as well called the Campus Accountability & Safety Act. They hope the bill can support efforts like PSU’s. 

“We know that nearly one out of five women are assaulted during their time as college students,” Merkley said. “It’s unbelievable that that is the case, and we know that those assaults often derail their life.”

The members of Oregon’s congressional delegation said they shouldn’t be alarmed about recent media reports showing a rising number of students reporting sexual violence on college campuses.

PSU’s Title IX coordinator, Julie Caron, argued the numbers are going up because students are feeling more comfortable coming forward. She said recent publicity is encouraging students to report what they’re going through.   

“Also, the student activism I think has brought the attention to parents and students that the reporting does not mean there is a greater problem, but that students feel empowered,” Caron said.   

PSU officials said their grant-funded work to create a national model to reduce sexual violence focuses in large part on reducing risks and raising student awareness.  Bonamici said it’s something parents worry about, as their children enroll in universities. 

“When I sent my daughter off to college with a big strong whistle and a conversation she said, ‘You’re talking to my brother, too, right?’” Bonamici recalled. 

PSU officials detailed a number of steps the university is taking to bring sexual assault into the open.

Amy Kayon, PSU’s relationships & sexual violence prevention coordinator, discussed a course she helps teach called “sexual violence prevention education and response.”

“It prepares student peers to become advocates or ‘preventionists’ in our programs, to enable peers to be doing this work on campus,” Kayon said. “I have a really amazing cadre of volunteers who are dedicated to prevention.”

“You call your side ‘the preventionists’?” Wyden asked. “Like the abolitionists — no more?”

“I hadn’t thought of that, but I’m going to roll with it,” Kayon answered, laughing.

University officials ticked off a number of realms at the university where they are focusing on identifying and reducing potential risks of sexual violence, including athletics, residential life, kids on campus and fraternities.

On athletics, PSU officials said they are seeing dedicated effort, starting with a “zero tolerance” for athletes.

That echoed the goal of Wyden for a “zero tolerance” policy across universities when it comes to sexual violence.

University administrators repeatedly circled back to prevention, but they acknowledged strong enforcement and privacy for victims were also crucial components of confronting sexual assault on campus.

The congressional members asked university officials for ways to improve the bill in Congress.

The PSU officials said they support the bill, but said they would welcome changes that other universities have called for so the laws could “fit their campus,” as Caron put it.