By Scott Malone
DURHAM, New Hampshire (Reuters) - The 1987 gang rape of an 18-year-old University of New Hampshire freshman by three fellow students set then-graduate student Jane Stapleton on a course that could revolutionize the way U.S. colleges and universities handle sexual assaults.
Stapleton helped develop a campus program that aims to eradicate sex assaults - not by focusing on potential victims and assailants, but by making other students aware how bystanders can play a key role in preventing an attack.
New Hampshire is one of three universities chosen to help a White House task force come up with a plan that could be rolled out at colleges across the United States to combat what it called a sex assault "epidemic."
"Instead of pointing fingers at women as victims or potential victims or men as perpetrators or potential perpetrators, it says everybody has a role to play here," said Stapleton, who is co-director of the Prevention Innovations initiative at UNH.
One in five coeds in the United States falls victim to sexual assault during her student years, studies show, and experts warn that many of the attacks go unreported.
The Department of Education on Thursday released a list of 55 colleges and universities facing lawsuits that contend their policies aimed at preventing sex assaults may be inadequate and a violation of Title IX, a 1972 U.S. law that prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds.
The military has also been confronting the issue and saw a 50 percent jump in reports of sex assaults in 2013.
"We're never going to solve this epidemic until we get men involved. They have to be part of the solution," said Vice President Joe Biden when he unveiled the initiative this week.
SOLUTION NEAR SCENE OF CRIME
Today, the school's Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program is based in a wooden building just a few minutes' walk from Stoke Hall, the site of the highly publicized 1987 rape, during which the assailants at one point went out into the hall and invited others to join in.
Fellow residents did nothing to stop the attack.
That incident shocked the university, which has about 14,700 students, and caused it to strengthen its anti-rape program, which took the two-pronged approach of giving women tips on how to avoid attack and urging young men not to commit sexual assault.
The focus shifted recently, when research found that only 6 percent of men ever commit a forcible sexual act. And while a substantial number - 20 percent - of coeds fall victim to sexual crimes, the number of perpetrators is small, meaning that the offenders prey on women repeatedly, Stapleton said.
"If we are going to stop this behavior, we need to create a community that says this behavior is unacceptable," Stapleton said, noting that a wide range of U.S. research has informed her work.
The program, which goes by the acronym SHARPP, runs workshops to teach students practical methods for heading off potential sex attacks, whether it be forming a conga line at a bar to walk an inebriated friend away from unwanted approach or turning on the lights at a party to discourage a sexual advance.
The university's program is one of just a handful in the country to treat reports of rape as confidential, not reporting attacks to the police without the victim's consent.
That is important since most victims of sex assault that takes place on or around a college campus know their attackers, and that can make them less willing to report the crime, said Maggie Wells, Sharpp's educational outreach coordinator.
"Part of empowerment is getting the situation back under the victim's control," Wells said.
Some victims come forward immediately. And when they do, the program dispatches student volunteers to accompany them to a hospital where staff collect the physical evidence police can use to pursue criminal charges.
The university offers other remediation options, from moving an assailant out of a victim's dorm to suspending the attacker from school until the victim graduates, even if that takes years, said Amy Culp, the program's interim director.
One of the main challenges faced by the program's staff and 38 student volunteers is overcoming the perception that sex assaults are an inevitable part of college culture.
"In a college setting, sexual assaults are kind of brushed under the table," said senior Samantha Richard, 22, of Londonderry, New Hampshire, who volunteers with the program.
"Say you're out partying and something happens. Friends are more apt to be 'Oh, don't worry about it, you were at a frat house, that's going to happen,'" she said.
It takes constant conversation with peers to help them overcome those attitudes, Richard said.
Still, Wells added that in six years of working with university groups she has seen students become far less likely to brush off concerns about rape.
"I'll go into a fraternity now and get a first-year student pushing back at me and I don't even have to say anything. The rest of the chapter steps in and starts saying, no, that's not actually how it is,'" Wells said.
"That's how you change culture. It shouldn't just be coming from us, it should be coming from our students," she added.
(Editing by Gunna Dickson)