Mary Collins, a 2014 University of Montana graduate who now helps administer campus anti-rape trainings, sees students becoming more aware of rape culture and sexual assaults—including ones they may have perpetrated.

At the University of Montana, You Must Pass an Anti-Rape Test Before You Register

After Jon Krakauer exposed a rape epidemic, the university embarked on a radical experiment in stopping sexual assault.

BY Gabriel Furshong

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The stories seem to mark a new chapter in the #MeToo movement in which offenders, as well as survivors, are self-reflecting.

Missoula Mont.—First-year and transfer students at the University of Montana (UM) shuffle into an auditorium for a spring orientation session. Their student IDs will be scanned as they exit to record their attendance. Only then will they be allowed to register for classes. 

This isn’t a presentation on campus layout or financial aid. It is a multimedia training on sexual assault prevention, with graphic language and images, including a short film that tracks a rapist and his victim from an early evening house party to a bar and, eventually, to a bedroom, where he begins to remove her clothes even though she’s barely conscious. 

Isaac La’a, an eight-year army veteran from Hawaii with a commanding voice, leads the training. He sets the tone by explaining (and re-explaining) the definition of consent—“clear, coherent, willing and ongoing”— and the role of the bystander. “Sixty-six percent of violent crimes occur in the presence of a bystander,” he says, making bystanders the “largest group of people involved in violence.”

Afterward, in the hall, a student from Spain reflects, “This is definitely taken more seriously here.” His friend, from Ireland, says, “[The training] made me think that I’ve probably been a bystander without knowing it.”

In April 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an investigation into the university’s handling of sexual assault after 80 rapes were reported over a three-year period in Missoula (pop. 72,000), home of UM. Investigators found that survivors were denied access to justice due to insufficient—or nonexistent—university policies. The school’s notoriety intensified after Jon Krakauer’s 2015 book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, became a bestseller. 

UM, and the city and county of Missoula, signed mandatory consent agreements with the DOJ in 2013. These served as blueprints for establishing what Roy Austin Jr., a former deputy assistant attorney general at the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, called the “gold standard” for sexual violence awareness and response. UM police, for example, completed 900 hours of training on management of sexual assault cases. Since 2012, each incoming class of first-year students (roughly 1,200 people) has taken a web-based tutorial, complete with a must-pass quiz, on sexual violence law and policy, consent, and rape myths. Juniors must take a refresher. 

The mandatory bystander training I observed, which was based on research conducted at the University of New Hampshire’s Prevention Innovations Research Center, was introduced in 2014. More than 8,500 students have undergone this training, including over 2,900 since June 2017—a reach that is uncommon. “Most universities just aren’t there yet—there is bystander intervention training offered, but it’s not mandatory,” explains Elise Lopez, assistant director of the relationship violence program at the University of Arizona.

With sexual assault still epidemic on college campuses, and #MeToo heightening awareness of the issue, many eyes are now on Missoula to see if the “gold standard” is good enough. 

Good data on sexual assault is hard to come by. Rape reports to the university or police aren’t an accurate measure, since most incidents go unreported. Also, improved sexual assault policies can actually increase reports, because better policies promote trust in the justice system. 

A more reliable measure of whether assaults are decreasing is an anonymous survey like those conducted by UM professor of psychology Christine Fiore. Between 2013 to 2015, she administered three campus climate surveys completed by more than 4,000 students. Unfortunately, to date, there’s not enough data to show a statistically significant change in sexual assault rates.

By another measure, though, Fiore sees a marked change. Over the three-year period, “there was a statistically significant increase in the rejection of rape myths,” Fiore says. The myths tested were “She asked for it,” “She lied,” “It wasn’t really rape,” and “He didn’t mean to.”

Fiore’s results are encouraging to Mary Collins, a UM graduate who works at the Student Advocacy Resource Center, the campus organization that administers bystander trainings. In her daily life on campus, she can already see and hear the change from when she came to UM as an undergraduate seven years ago.  

She says it’s now more common to hear concerns from male students about whether they may have perpetrated sexual assault. The stories seem to mark a new chapter in the #MeToo movement in which offenders, as well as survivors, are self-reflecting.

“I’ve had conversations with peers reflecting on high school relationships, saying ‘I don’t know if I asked whether I could touch her or kiss her,’ or, ‘Gosh, I don’t know if I’ve violated her or if that was consensual; at the time I thought it was fine, but looking back I wonder whether I did everything I could to make that healthy and consensual,’ ” says Collins. “It’s reached that boiling point, so now people are asking, ‘What does this look like in my life, in my role?’ ” 

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Gabriel Furshong is based in Helena, Mont., and has written for High Country News, Yes! magazine, Earth Island Journal, The Cossack Review and elsewhere.

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