The University of Wyoming is studying its lighting and landscaping and considering using a cellphone safety app as students raise concerns in the wake of a recent sexual assault.
“We’ve done a lot on sexual assault prevention, which is things like don’t like walk alone at night, call the escort service,” UW President Laurie Nichols told the Star-Tribune last week. “Students appreciate it, (but) they haven’t been as responsive to that. They would like to see us go back and really analyze the campus and point out to us areas where they think we can work to make the campus a safer place.”
Campus sexual assault, which Nichols said is a “critical issue,” has been especially prominent at UW in recent weeks. A female — whose age and affiliation with the university is unclear — was tackled and sexually assaulted by a stranger on Nov. 10 as she walked across a War Memorial Stadium parking lot. Details remain scant on the assault: The victim did not personally report the assault to police, who learned of it more than 24 hours later. Nichols said there’s little new information on the investigation, and the assailant has not been identified.
She noted that despite a common misconception, the rapist or attacker is typically known to the victim.
The attack was one of five reports of sexual assault that the University of Wyoming Police Department has received in 2017, said UW spokesman Chad Baldwin. He cautioned that that may not be a complete count of the number of sexual assaults that are reported at the school, as it did not take into account reports made to other entities on campus, like the counseling center. Final numbers will be prepared in the coming weeks.
Four of the five assaults in 2017 took place in UW residence halls or apartments, Baldwin said.
Total numbers from previous years show an uptick in overall reports, university data shows. There were 19 reports of forcible sexual assault in 2016, 14 in 2015 and nine in 2014. University police received 15 reports in 2013, five in 2012 and seven in 2011.
Sean Blackburn, UW’s vice president for student affairs, told lawmakers Thursday that the university believes that the recent increase in reports is a result of more awareness rather than more assaults. A greater number of victims may feel more comfortable coming forward now because of the university’s efforts, he said.
“So we actually see that as a success, as more students come forward to get help and assistance and get connected to the different resources,” Blackburn told lawmakers on the Joint Appropriations Committee, who were discussing the university’s budget but had asked Nichols about sexual assault rates.
Nichols, who also spoke to lawmakers Thursday morning, said she watches the sexual assault numbers “like a hawk.”
“Anytime there’s a sexual assault, we have a meeting immediately to talk about it,” she told the committee. She ticked off what officials discuss at those meetings: “What happened, could it have been prevented, what can we do about it, is the victim being provided for and what else can we do about it. So believe me, I’m – we are working on this on a case-by-case basis, but it’s that important.”
Still, students appear frustrated. Wyoming Public Media, which has reported on victims of sexual assault at the university, wrote in August that UW is facing a federal investigation for its handling of sexual violence reports. After the November assault, students held a walkout and delivered a petition to Nichols’ office that called for timelier handling of allegations, notifications of assault that happen off-campus, better lighting, and more.
“It was just a student gathering ... where they were trying to bring to light that students were, you know, not happy with where we’re at right now with sexual assault and they wanted us to do more for campus safety,” Nichols told the Star-Tribune.
She said the university has listened: The Associated Students of the University of Wyoming has formed a committee to look more closely at campus safety, and the university is studying its lighting and landscaping, among other things.
Nichols said officials were also looking at a smartphone app called SafeTrek. If a student feels unsafe in a situation that doesn’t yet require calling 911, he or she places a finger on the screen. If student feels better, he or she can remove their finger and type in a pin number. But if the situation escalates and the student needs assistance, then the pin is not entered and emergency services are dispatched to that location.
The university currently has blue lights on its campus. The system involves tall blue poles placed around campus that light up at night and can be used by people walking across campus to contact authorities should they feel unsafe.
For a little less than a year, the university has also been running its own No More campaign, part of an international effort to shed more light on sexual and domestic violence.