How Often Does Sexual Assault Happen at Seattle U?


Seattle University campus pictured at night. / Jordie Simpson

The following article contains discussion of sexual assault data and policy; engage at your own capacity.

Every year, April comes and goes, and the Seattle University community participates in educational events about consent, healthy relationships and reporting options for Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). The Spectator releases yearly coverage of the programming, pulling national data about sexual assault to inform their reporting. 

But on a hyper-local level, among Seattle U students, how many have been sexually assaulted? 

Director of Wellness and Health Promotion Chris Fiorello spends a lot of time with data from the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) at Seattle U. His office is the primary body that hosts the survey. Seattle U has hosted the survey every other year since 2009 and includes a plethora of general health questions. In the most recent survey, roughly 45 of 445 undergraduate students surveyed anonymously stated that they had experienced non-consensual touching outside of an intimate relationship in a period of 12 months. This is about 10.1% of undergraduate students. 

For Fiorello, the data creates additional questions and a need for additional community conversations. 

“It becomes this question you can’t answer within this data, ‘where is this occurring? Is this occurring in residence hall rooms? Is this occurring between Seattle U students? Is this occurring at clubs? Is this street harassment?,’” Fiorello said. “I could honestly hire a full-time person to explore these questions and then do follow-ups.”

The data is further complicated by the number of campus sexual assaults that go unreported. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) is a national organization that does work against sexual violence and has compiled data showing that 310 out of every 1,000 incidents of sexual assault are reported, specifically to police. 

Stigma surrounding sexual violence, denial and distrust of authority figures within various communities are reasons Fiorello gave as to why someone might not report. He also mentioned emotional safety. 

“Reporting versus what’s happening are two different things,” Fiorello said. “There’s also emotional safety concerns with reporting, like ‘I don’t want the university, I don’t want the police within my life.’ Sometimes there’s actually protective factors because most sexual violence occurs within known persons.”

Seattle U’s new Title IX Coordinator Elizabeth Trayner echoed Fiorello’s thoughts about stigma stopping people from reporting their experiences. She says sexual assault is incredibly underreported on all campuses and supports informed decisions about whether or not to report. 

“This is something that thrives in silence,” Trayner said. “I’m a big proponent of sharing information about what the process looks like, what we can and can’t do.”

To help break the silence, Wellness and Health Promotion put on 10 events throughout April. Mikaela Wallin, associate director of Wellness and Health Promotion, was involved with putting together the events. One of the first actions her office took this year was to create a Student Planning Committee and refer to feedback they’d received from students in previous years. The committee was open to any student, regardless of if they held a leadership position in another on-campus organization or not.

“We just really wanted to allow students who are excited or interested in talking about this topic or be involved in violence prevention an opportunity to join and participate. Not only in the events and the planning, but to really have their voice heard in the space of what they think, what would or would not be a great event,” Wallin said. 

Andi Thomas-Sanchez, a graduate student at Seattle U and program coordinator for Healthy Relationships at Wellness and Health Promotion worked directly with the Student Planning Committee. They mentioned two events that garnered feedback from community members. Neither of the events appeared in this year’s programming the same way as last year.

The Clothesline Project is the first of the two. Students were invited to decorate white shirts, which would later be hung around the campus. A Seattle University webpage says “This awareness program makes visible the presence of violence in our community in a way that cannot be ignored.” Thomas-Sanchez thinks the clothesline project is important, but that the way it’s delivered needs to be thoughtful. 

“One of the modifications we made this year is creating the SAAM Art Showcase and really giving the students the opportunity to step into a space, giving them the choice to say ‘I feel like I’m in a headspace, I’m comfortable with this content and I want to hear from survivors,’ or saying, ‘I just can’t do it today,’” Thomas-Sanchez said. 

Along with the SAAM Art Showcase, a poetry workshop was new to the SAAM lineup this year. Wallin says the events were inspired by a desire to let students opt-in to spaces only when they felt ready. 

“We don’t want to take away those important spaces for people, but we really want to curate those spaces in ways that feel safer and allow us to provide support, whether that be having information on resources or just having a person in the space,” Wallin said.

To help create safe spaces that can be willingly engaged with, a poetry event, open art creation hours for the SAAM showcase and a workshop about sexual violence all had reporting exemptions. Wallin says this was so people could enter as their authentic selves.

“A poem shared, for example, will not constitute a disclosure in the way it might outside of that,” Wallin said. 

The second event that garnered feedback was Take Back the Night, which included a march around the campus grounds and opportunities to hear survivors speak about their own experiences. Historically, the event garnered a crowd appropriate for the size of Seattle U. In 2017, about two-dozen students participated. Spectator coverage from 2013 describes chants that could be heard anywhere on campus and mentions that it was a “well-attended event.” The picture accompanying the article shows a crowd of students participating in a candlelight vigil. 

The attendance the event used to gather is no longer a reality. Madison Powell, a third-year biology major and part of the Health and Wellness Crew (HAWC), remembers that no one showed up to last year’s Take Back the Night.

“We had no one. No one came. The people who worked on the organizing came,” Powell said. 

Thomas-Sanchez heard about the lack of attendance from the person in the Program Coordinator for Healthy Relationships position before them.

“It’s been tough to get engagement for things. I think it’s kind of a Seattle U thing across the board,” Thomas-Sanchez said. “It’s really hard when there’s no one there to march except people that are affiliated with our office.” 

In response to the lack of engagement, this year’s events focused on a variety of topics catering to specific interests, according to Thomas-Sanchez. For Wallin, the student-driven committee also helped engage students in the conversation.

“We have the wonderful job of getting to create fun, educational programming on important wellness and health topics. While I might think something is wonderful and fun, it doesn’t matter how fun I think something is if it’s not something a student feels is fun and exciting,” Wallin said. 

Both Thomas-Sanchez and Powell feel that this year’s events had a better turnout. Thomas-Sanchez says one of the most popular events this year was Yoga For Healing, which drew a full house. A couple of people showed up to the smaller workshops, which Thomas-Sanchez is okay with.

“Even if it’s just one person impacted by the content, at least we know that that’s one person that benefited from that program,” Thomas-Sanchez said. 

Alone, events that raise awareness aren’t enough to create a campus value of consent. The work doesn’t stop at the end of April. That’s why Fiorello has projects he works on year-round. 

From national public data, Fiorello explained that sexual assault occurs at the highest rates in student’s first year, during the first six to eight weeks. Given this data, Seattle U includes sexual assault education in their orientation.

“We try to get messages really out there in that early period of time. It’s also why it’s part of our pre-matriculation program,” Fiorello said. 

Stickers in bathrooms around campus advertising is another project outside of SAAM. Fiorello worked on the project alongside Deirdre Bowen, director of the Family Law Center at the Seattle U School of Law. The website lists on and off-campus resources related to sexual violence. It also includes tabs explaining different reporting options. 

There’s new energy around Seattle U’s response to sexual assault. With a new Title IX coordinator, new student-led committee and renewed interest in SAAM events, spreading awareness has the potential to become easier. The results of the new energy will depend on how well these new entities serve the 10.1%.