There is no comfortable way of talking about rape culture. But the fact of the matter is, that’s what needs to happen.
In the last three years, allegations of sexual assault in local schools have forced something of a reckoning — which, for many, was long overdue. Students, who are often burdened with the painful work of inciting societal change, have once again shown their bravery and come forward to report assaults and misconduct. They have raised their voices, they have walked out and they have demonstrated in order to force us — the adults and leaders and should-be role models of the larger Boulder community — to face the ugly reality that our culture propagates sexual assault.
In 2019, Fairview High School’s star quarterback, Aidan Atkinson, whose name was published by the Camera since he was charged as an adult, was arrested and charged in connection with alleged assaults on a party bus the prior year. Atkinson was acquitted at trial of sexual assault but pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor harassment.
In February, in a separate case, a former lacrosse player at the high school, who was not named since he was charged in juvenile court, was sentenced to 90 days in jail followed by two years of probation after being convicted of raping three students.
And most recently a former Fairview football player, who was also not named, was convicted last month of a misdemeanor in a sexual assault case. The ex-student was accused of pinning a female student to a locker and putting his hand down her shorts during their freshman year at Fairview. He is also charged with sexually assaulting another student at a basement party; those charges are still pending and the ex-student is scheduled to stand trial again this month.
Without dismissing what some students have called a campus culture tolerant of sexual violence, Fairview is far from being the only school struggling with sexual misconduct.
According to a CU sexual misconduct survey released last week, in 2021 approximately 15% of undergraduate women reported being sexually assaulted since coming to CU Boulder, and approximately 19% of undergraduate women reported experiencing sexual harassment. These numbers show a marked improvement from the previous 2015 survey, where 28% of undergraduate women reported being sexually assaulted and 28% of undergraduate women reported experiencing sexual harassment. But even the most recent numbers highlight a pervasive culture.
More broadly in Boulder, the nonprofit Moving to End Sexual Assault has seen an 80% increase in calls since this time last year, according to the organization’s director, Janine D’Anniballe.
These numbers show that this problem is not isolated to one school. This is not to say that Fairview did not have a culture that was permissive of misconduct, but rather to say that we must recognize that this is a societal issue that can only be curbed with cultural change.
And while this effort to incite a cultural shift has been necessary for a long time, we are in a good place to make it happen. The systems to report sexual assault and the services necessary to support victims are, for the most part, readily available in our community.
“In Boulder County, a lot of good things are in place. We have advocacy groups, we have resources, you can make anonymous reports, you can get an exam done by a trained sexual assault nurse examiner — the system’s pieces are in place,” D’Anniballe said. What we need, she said, is a concerted effort toward prevention.
The Boulder Valley School District has also been working to ensure that resources are readily available for any students who might need them. The district brought in a Title IX coordinator and created a student-led Title IX Advisory Council. According to health and wellness coordinator Jordan Goto, BVSD is working to offer appropriate measures for every student who seeks additional support.
The foundation, then, has been laid for our schools and communities to focus on prevention. And prevention starts with education — for students, staff, faculty, parents and the community as a whole.
“For years we have been asking the wrong question. ‘What can women do to keep themselves safe?’ That is the wrong question,” D’Anniballe said. “The right question is, ‘How do we change our culture?’”
The answer, for D’Anniballe, is to destigmatize conversations about sex and sexuality. “Sexual violence lives in this culture of silence and misinformation. So the more we can talk about healthy sexuality, healthy relationships and consent, the better,” she said.
Hand in hand with this is education. And while sex education has long been a part of BVSD’s curriculum, the district has been working to update it.
“From the moment students are walking through our doors they are getting developmentally appropriate consent education,” BVSD’s Goto said. Essentially, the district is working to help students build the skills necessary to have and recognize healthy relationships at the youngest age.
But school is only one part of a young person’s life. In order to incite the cultural overhaul necessary to end rape culture, the community as a whole must be in on the effort. We need comprehensive sex education. We need consent training. We need to end victim blaming and begin reexamining and potentially reimagining masculinity. And we must create a culture that values women and girls and boys and men as equal and equally deserving of respect.
These are not things that students can do all on their own.
It is easy to write off one school or institution and say it is rotten and the hurt caused there could have only happened there. The truth, though, is that it is a societal problem, which makes it a community problem. This truth, though, does not absolve perpetrators or abusers or those complicit in sexual violence. It does not absolve Fairview High School or the University of Colorado or any institution where sexual violence might occur. Rather, it too should ask us to recognize that the work that needs to be done is cultural.
This will take time, and it will take work, and it will involve conversations that many will find uncomfortable. But we owe it to the students who have had the courage to come forward.
For BVSD Title IX Coordinator Elizabeth Francis, we wouldn’t be having this reckoning without their bravery. “It’s a monumental thing that our students have advocated and used their voices to bring these issues to the community’s attention,” Francis said.
Let’s not have their courage go to waste.
Resources for sexual assault survivors
To contact the Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA) 24-hour hotline, call 303-443-7300 or text BRAVE to 20121.
To file a police report, contact the CU Police Department for on-campus incidents at 303-492-6666 or the Boulder Police Department for off-campus incidents at 303-441-3333.
Additional student resources are available at colorado.edu/dontignoreit.
— Gary Garrison for the Editorial Board