Congress honors UC-Merced for anti-violence program

McClatchy NewspapersApril 19, 2012 

— Federal lawmakers on Thursday saluted a University of California at Merced venture that may help keep the rural campus safer than most.

But it’s complicated, because an increase in sexual assault reports actually counts as progress.

In a Capitol Hill ceremony, the university’s anti-violence program won formal kudos from the Congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus. Although modest, the glass statuette and non-monetary award conveys national respect for a program begun only two years ago.

“This fledgling campus is showing all the other schools in the country how to do it right,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, Calif.

Cardoza and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, Calif., nominated the U.C. Merced Violence Prevention Program for the annual award, one of several given by the congressional caucus. The Merced program seeks to make it easier for alleged victims to report assaults to police. It includes training in how to recognize signs of sexual assault and domestic violence, as well as assistance in filing reports and obtaining aid. To help prevent assaults in the first place, the program offers mandatory classes for first-year students.

“We make the classes really fun,” program director Kari Mansager said. “We have one program called ‘Twilight: Is it an unhealthy relationship?’”

For those out of the teen loop, the “Twilight” series of young adult novels deals with the relationship between a teen-aged girl and a century-old vampire, with a werewolf tossed into the mix.

Sex-related crimes, more than most, tend to be under-reported because of the stigma involved. By some estimates, only one in six sexual assaults is reported to authorities.

Consequently, an increase in reported assaults from one year to the next could mean alleged victims have become more willing to report their allegations, or it could mean a campus has become tangibly more dangerous, or perhaps some combination of the two.

In 2010, the most recent year for which federal Education Department records are available, U.C. Merced reported one forcible sex offense on campus. There were no other reported serious crimes that year.

The same year, Stanislaus State reported three forcible sex assaults on campus, along with 10 motor vehicle thefts and two arsons. Fresno State had two robberies, 12 burglaries and 11 motor vehicle thefts.

University officials, though, figure students were not reporting every assault that occurred. U.C. Merced’s anti-violence program kicked in with training and outreach. While the latest official records have not yet been posted by the Education Department, officials say 27 alleged assaults were reported to law enforcement in 2011.

“It’s good news,” victims’ rights advocate Patricia Bauer said of the higher numbers, “because we knew it was happening before, but people wouldn’t come forward.”

Bauer is based on the U.C. Merced campus, splitting her time between working for the university and for the Valley Crisis Center. Mansager is the program’s sole full-time employee.

“This is a new campus, and so we get to implement right away the attitude that we’re going to talk about (sexual assault), and we’re going to take it seriously,” Mansager said.

The 70-plus member Congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus, founded in 2006 by Costa and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, sponsors substantive legislation as well as signal-sending resolutions and the annual awards ceremony. Next week, for instance, has been designated National Crime Victims’ Week, while all of April has been designated Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

As at other campuses, U.C. Merced reports significantly more disciplinary proceedings for drug and liquor violations than for violent crimes. In 2010, the Merced campus reported 16 on-campus drug violations, 67 liquor law violations and one weapons charge.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com

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