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Even though it was only a year and a half ago, Daniela Ferrera can’t remember learning a whole lot about consent and sexual assault prevention during her freshman orientation at Florida International University.
She recalls peer educators acting out a few skits depicting a male student as the aggressor and a female student as the victim who had too much to drink, but that was pretty much it.
So when the political science student was looking for an elective last semester and stumbled upon a new class called “Understanding and Preventing Campus Sexual Assault,” she did a bit of research. She found that the class was unlike anything other universities offered.
It was timely, too. Following the wave of the #MeToo movement, the inaugural class, taught by professor Vicki Burns, addressed the unique risk factors specific to college students and rape on campus, how biases like sexism and racism intersect with sexual violence, and Title IX investigations on college campuses.
But instead of a final exam or thesis paper, students grouped together to create a sexual assault prevention plan for FIU. The bonus: Top college administrators would be there to listen to the presentations and see whether any of their plans could be implemented on campus.
“I was really proud of FIU for having a class like that,” said Ferrera, 20. “This really proves the administration is hearing us. They’re willing to create these spaces for students to speak.”
Burns, who studied to become a therapist in private practice, previously worked at counseling centers at FIU and the University of Miami. She realized that students came to the centers to talk about anxiety or relationship problems that constituted as sexual assault or rape, and they didn’t even realize it.
“I felt compelled to do something about that,” Burns said. “Instead of counseling students who have been assaulted, I wanted to help students before the fact.”
According to campus safety and security data from the U.S. Department of Education, FIU had a rate of 0.15 incidents of rape per 1,000 students in 2016. That’s the lowest rate compared to UM (.24) and other large state public universities such as the University of Central Florida (0.27), and University of Florida and Florida State University (both at .44).
Some attribute the low rate to the fact that FIU is largely a commuter school, and many assaults could happen off-campus or can be reported to police agencies outside of the university.
Burns joined FIU’s faculty three years ago and pieced together a new course. With no prerequisites required, the class, offered through the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, filled to its cap of 50 students.
In the same week in late April that the course was officially approved by the state, the students presented their ideas. They ranged from earning teal cords and tassels for completing a sexual assault prevention training program to airing an honest, call-in, talk show program about healthy sex on FIU’s campus radio station, The Roar Miami.
The presentations had common themes: After surveying students who were divided on what consent means, groups called for longer, mandatory courses for all students beyond what’s discussed at orientation and a required online course. A few groups created trainings specifically for Greek organizations after fraternities have made headlines for past unsavory behavior. Since FIU has a student population that is largely Hispanic, one group wanted to take on machismo.
Remembering how orientation didn’t include any scenarios involving LGBTQ-identifying students, Ferrera’s group called its project, “Queering Sexual Assault Prevention.” It involved creating a specialized workshop for students who identify as LGBTQ during freshman and transfer student orientations.
A pilot program is now planned for 50 LGBTQ students in fall 2019.
“I think it’s a misconception that sexual assault only happens from men against women,” said Alyssa Pepio, a women’s and gender studies junior who was described by Ferrera as the “brainchild” of the project. “It was a really empowering experience to be able to launch a project like that.”
Zenon Acosta, a finance junior and just one of two male students in the class, has already taken three of Burns’ classes. For his group’s project, “Step Up Speak Up,” he spoke with members of his business fraternity Alpha Kappa Psi who were also in social fraternities to ask about how their group’s initiatives could be implemented by the Greek community.
“It’s pretty cool that one of only two guys to be in that class could really show that a man could have an interest in a class like this and really understand what’s going on with women’s issues,” he said.
After the presentations, administrators commended students on their proposals.
“We could not have asked for a better focus group,” said Sherry Aaron, director of the Victim Empowerment Program at FIU, “where we can better understand where to reach out and help other students.”
“You’ve taught me so much,” said Interim Dean of Students Tony Delgado. “What’s culminating here is amazing.”
Burns said the class will nearly double to accommodate 90 students this fall. So far, 30 students have registered for the course.
Colleen Wright can be reached at 305-376-2863 and @colleen_wright