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Here's how one Michigan college trains freshmen about sexual assault prevention

Sep 8, 2015

Credit CMU

Colleges are now legally required to train new students about sexual assault prevention and awareness.

That’s part of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act.  

And it turns out the training at Central Michigan University has been pretty popular for a while now.  

A lot of other colleges have hired CMU’s training group. The Navy even brought them to instruct groups of sailors and Marines.

So we thought, what better time to check it out?  

First day of college: learning about the profile, and patterns, of assailants   

On a hot, muggy morning at Central Michigan University, hundreds of nervous, trying-to-play-it-cool freshmen file into the auditorium for orientation.

And CMU’s trainers, they know their audience. 

"Well how are we doing this morning? Tired? Hung over? Excellent!”

Braden Thompson is a scruffy, broad-shouldered guy who comes off like a regional stand-up comic on his 300th college tour – the guy has clearly done this a lot.  

And the freshmen are eating out of his hand within seconds.  

"If you say anything, I swear to God I will go for it," Thompson says, his voice reverberating through the large auditorium, students sitting riveted. "I'll say you're a slut and you hooked up with three of my teammates last night. I will ruin your reputation. No one's gonna believe you."

But he gets serious fast.

Throughout the training, Thompson comes back to what he says is the profile – and the pattern – of someone who commits acquaintance rape.

Step one, says Thompson, is when the guy – and it is mostly guys, he says – selects his target.

"Usually what'll happen is he'll select somebody who'll be flattered by his attention,” he says. “If he's an upperclassman, he's going for a freshman. Somebody who’s going to be happy that this guy is talking to me.”  

Step two: He tests the situation. Pushes drugs and alcohol.

"Hey, come on, it's welcome weekend, take a shot! I know you're not a big drinker, just take a couple shots with me. Welcome to Central, let's get drunk!"

Step three: isolate. 

"Once he's got them alone, he will attempt what he considers consensual sex,” Thompson explains. “Now the reason I say it like that, is because to this person, sex with a person who's completely passed out, sex with an incapacitated human being, is consensual."

Don’t worry: Thompson clarifies that that is CRAZY and definitely NOT consensual.

The final step, Thompson says, is that the attacker will try to cut off any remaining feelings of control his victim may have.  

"If you say anything, I swear to God I will go for it,” Thompson says, his voice reverberating through the large auditorium, students sitting riveted. “I'll say you're a slut and you hooked up with three of my teammates last night. I will ruin your reputation. No one's gonna believe you."

These patterns are played out in skits, too, with trainer Katie Kleve playing a survivor of sexual assault.

She sits alone on stage, sobbing, her long dark hair falling in front of her face.  

"I didn't want this. I can’t believe this is happening. I thought he was such a nice guy.”

At this point, about an hour in, the entire auditorium of freshmen is IN IT. They are totally silent.

Kleve tells them: Look, if somebody tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted, you might not know what to say.

“Well I’m going to give you the tools you will need, which is three simple words. ‘I believe you.’” 

Student reaction: “I was thinking about my family.”

When the training wraps to big applause, we pull aside two freshman guys, Zach Schrolls and Michael Eller of Walled Lake.

They're clean-cut, athletic-looking guys.

And they say both their parents have talked to them about sexual assault – even telling them it's affected members of their family.

"When I thought about, like, the family – I was thinking about them the entire time the training was going on."

The guys say there was this one moment that really stuck out from the training.

The trainers had the audience close their eyes, and picture four women in their lives.

Then, the trainers told students to imagine that one of those women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime.

It doesn't sound like the most original way of making the “one in four women” stat hit home.

But for these guys, it works.

Eller says he thought about “my sister, my grandmother, my girlfriend and then my mom."

For Schroll: "I thought about my mom, my sister, and my cousin, and then my friend, Celine, right there.”

This kind of mandatory training for all new college students is one of the ways the federal government is hoping to make campuses safer.

But whether the training is any good, whether it’s actually effective? That’s up to schools.