Home Youth activism On ‘Denim Day,’ UNH students call for an end to the epidemic of sexual violence

On ‘Denim Day,’ UNH students call for an end to the epidemic of sexual violence

‘Denim Day’ rallygoers at UNH on Wednesday. ARNIE ALPERT

By ARNIE ALPERT, Active with Activists

DURHAM—Speaking to several dozen students gathered on the Great Lawn at UNH in Durham, Kai Parlett asked his audience to consider New Hampshire kids dreaming of going to college for an education and to make friends.

“Imagine if college was about learning nuanced math, or how to write, or crazy, awesome science,” Parlett suggested.

Instead, students on campuses like UNH need to learn “which path is best lit at night, which fraternities you shouldn’t go to, and which faculty members are safe people and who’s going to tell you it’s safe.” is your fault”.

For Parlett, the lesson came quickly. Two weeks into her freshman year at UNH, she was drugged and raped at a campus party, and it wasn’t even the worst of her experience, she said. “Instead of supporting me,” the women’s and gender studies major explained, “this university made me feel like I was the one at fault.”

Parlett approved the publication of his name. Generally, InDepthNH.org does not publish the names of rape victims.

After protests last fall accusing the UNH administration of doing too little to establish a climate of safety on campus, Parlett joined other students in forming the Action Against Violence Committee. (SVAC), which hosted the UNH rally on Wednesday.

Campus programs, she said, are “too often focused on the choices made by abused people rather than the choices made by abusers.

“I don’t feel safe here and I don’t feel supported here,” Parlett said, adding, “I’m not sure the administration views this as a problem.”

The problem of sexual violence on campuses is not insignificant. According to a report prepared for the university by the Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program (SHARPP), “In a single year at the University of New Hampshire, 17% of students (about 2,500 students) experience at least one violent incident interpersonal. sexual violence (SPI), ranging from sexual assault and harassment to harassment and violence in relationships.

The report from SHARPP, a draft sexual violence “prevention plan” released last November, says UNH’s experience is consistent with what is being reported across the country, which “sheds light on why higher education researchers and practitioners refer to sexual violence on campus as an ‘epidemic.’”

The problem is not new either; SHARPP itself grew out of grassroots student activism in the late 1970s. The agency now provides education, training, and support to the campus community. But the problem has not gone away.

Another speaker who volunteers with both SVAC and SHARPP described herself as “a human whose autonomy and choice were taken away not overnight but again and again over the months of processing the title. IX [a nondiscrimination law which applies to most institutions of higher learning] and court proceedings just to be told that the case could not be charged due to insufficient evidence, even though I had written proof from my abuser of his actions.

Changing the system was the focus of the UNH gathering, initiated by SVAC and co-sponsored by nine other organizations, including SHARPP. It was on “Denim Day”, an internationally observed event that marks an incident 30 years ago when an Italian judge dismissed charges against a rapist on the grounds that his victim was wearing tight jeans. Many of the rally attendees wore denim, which SVAC’s Brecken Harrigan says means “we will not tolerate victim blaming or sexual violence and to show our support for survivors.”

If there was one consistent message from all the speakers, it was “Get Involved”. To this end, co-sponsoring groups set up tables on the lawn where volunteers were available to talk about their group’s particular role. UNH Wildcats in Action is a relatively new advocacy group calling for mandatory courses dealing with sexual violence prevention and related topics. The UNH branch of the NH Youth Movement supports activism at the State House, including on topics such as reproductive choice. The Reproductive Freedom Fund had an office, as did the Women and Gender Studies Program and campus agencies that provide counseling services.

Within the amalgam of different groups and voices, the Sexual Violence Action Committee sees its role as making things happen. Unlike the programs that are inside the system, SVAC exists to pressure the system to change. “We’re here, we’re loud, we pay to be here,” Parlett told me. SVAC’s message to the university is, “We’re going to keep standing up until you stop ignoring us.” We hope to keep rising until you stop saying it’s okay because it’s not, we know it’s not.

For Hailey Kaliscik, who sat at the SVAC table, the goal of the group is to be proactive, to “notice what is happening on campus and be ready to talk about it”.

“We can cause some good mayhem,” Parlett said with a smile. “I think it’s necessary.”

It can work. Among the speakers at a rally billed as a “class walkout” was Mike Blackman, the dean of students, who looked quite comfortable taking the microphone at a rally of protest. Expressing his gratitude to student activists who pushed the administration to act more forcefully, Blackman said he finds it “amazing that we can come together as a community and really advocate for change together.”

The university has a plan, released last December, with 22 “concrete commitments” grouped under the categories of prevention, reporting, training and specific student safety concerns. For Blackman, who has only been dean of students for about a year, the plan marks a start. “I don’t think any of us can sit down and say the job is now done,” he said.

When I asked the dean if the problem of sexual violence had gotten worse, he said that UNH was “no different” from other campuses. “I wouldn’t say for sure if it’s getting better or worse, but I think we’re seeing a cultural shift and more attention.”

Erica Vazza, acting director of SHARPP, agreed. “Student activism is reborn,” she told me.

Kai Parlett says SVAC is considering making Denim Day an annual event on the UNH campus. On April 27, it will be interesting to look back and see if renewed activism and institutional focus made a difference.

Arnie Alpert

Arnie Alpert is a retired activist, organizer and community educator with a long history of involvement in movements for social and economic justice. Arnie writes an occasional column Active with activists for InDepthNH.org.