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Study charts sex aggression on campus

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / October 2, 2011

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One in 10 students at Bridgewater State University has been the victim of sexual aggression since arriving on campus, according to survey results presented last week to students, faculty, and regional and state care providers who regularly deal with fallout from such incidents.

Richard Wright, chairman of the university’s criminal justice department and author of the study on unwanted sexual experience among local college students, said Bridgewater State’s 10 percent rate is in fact low for a college setting. The norm is over 20 percent, or one in five, he said.

Wright said he was surprised by the data.

“Our hypothesis was that Bridgewater State University would fall somewhere in the middle of campuses where studies had been done,’’ he said, adding that finding out why the rate is so low may be part of future research.

He said he found it troubling that 20 percent of Bridgewater State students reported an unwanted sexual experience prior to coming to the college, based on their survey answers.

“The university may, in fact, be a safer environment than where they were before,’’ he said, whether that may have been a high school or community college.

About 6,000 of Bridgewater State’s 11,000 students were sent surveys via the Internet. Of those, 1,550 responded, or about 26 percent, considered a strong response rate.

Wright’s 41-question survey, sent out in two phases during the last school year, covered everything from nonconsensual touching to sexual intercourse under the category of unwanted sexual experience, which he defined as “any sexual act you either did not consent to or did not want to have happen.’’

The professor’s aim was to determine the scope of the problem at Bridgewater State and then develop ways to help those who had unwanted experiences. Victims in most cases didn’t seek medical help, based on their survey answers, or contact local police. Instead they turned to friends, partners, and roommates, making students a vital part of the solution.

“You are the first responders, since 88 percent of the time you are the people who are going to hear about it before parents, police, or anyone else,’’ Wright told an audience of about 150 students attending Tuesday’s presentation.

Next steps may include establishing a task force of students and staff to explore solutions, producing a more in-depth follow-up survey, and developing ways to provide more information to students on hot lines and agencies that help victims of sexual aggression.

Wright asked students attending his presentation to leave their e-mail addresses and promised another meeting within the next month.

He said he hopes to pursue how the split between commuter and resident students factors into the data as well as into a solution. About 66 percent of Bridgewater State students are commuters.

“One challenge will be how to provide services to students here for only two hours a day,’’ he said. “Residential students would be more likely to get services.’’

Representatives of agencies who attended Wright’s presentation said Bridgewater State’s survey and willingness to share results is an unusual and important step in addressing sexual transgressions among a population that is considered at high risk, due to the lack of supervision and the availability of drugs and alcohol.

“It’s a ray of sunshine to have some real data and a university willing to self-report and then do more,’’ said Nancy Ryan, a longtime domestic violence care provider in New Bedford and Cambridge.

Massachusetts Department of Public Health representatives said they hope to connect Wright with colleagues at other universities. A study similar to Bridgewater State’s was recently completed at the University of New Hampshire.

“Maybe we can develop a wider network of resource sharing,’’ said Marci Diamond, the department’s director of sexual assault prevention and survivor services.

The agency recently produced an action plan for healthy relationships and sexual respect, Diamond said. One of its steps calls for strengthening college and university policies and programming on healthy relationships and sexual and domestic violence prevention. The department funds a regional rape crisis center based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; data from that program might also supplement Bridgewater State’s, she said.

Bridgewater State senior Jim Cardella said discussion must continue.

“I’m interested in what comes next,’’ he said.

Cardella had his own theory on why the percentage rate for unwanted sexual experience at Bridgewater State was about half of the college norm: “There’s a huge police presence here,’’ he said.

David Tillinghast, chief of police on the campus, agreed, adding that underage alcohol use has been significantly curtailed in recent years.

“The university has a stringent stance,’’ he said.

Christine Legere can be reached at