By the time Devi Jags learned what the “red zone” is, she had already experienced two devastating incidents of sexual violence and harassment.
Jags, a 25-year-old marketing and sales director, was assaulted at the start of her sophomore year at Xavier University in 2015. A cross-country runner, Jags was attacked at a party by someone who was close to one of her teammates.
Running became traumatizing. She felt isolated, “out of sync” with her body and mind.
“I was just basically living in fear and grief,” said Jags.
During that time, she befriended another athlete. He developed feelings for her, and when she didn’t return them, he became increasingly hostile and violent, she said. He got jealous when she spoke to other men, threw chairs when he felt slighted by her and frequently talked about his desire to get a gun.
She reported his behavior to a campus Title IX officer but declined to participate in a hearing. She thought, incorrectly, that doing so meant she would need to be in the same room as him. Jags wanted to avoid that at all costs.
It was a spoken-word event featuring the poetry duo Speak Like a Girl that marked a turning point for her.
A poem about military sexual violence completely broke her down, said Jags. It helped her understand what happened to her. That she wasn’t alone. That she could use her voice to help others.
“There’s nothing more powerful,” said Jags, “than a group of passionate, angry, fed-up women.”
Jags began writing, then speaking out about her experiences. Encouraged by faculty members, she became a peer advocate, attending trainings on sexual assault. She eventually came across one striking statistic: Around 50 percent of sexual violence incidents on college campuses happen between August and November — more than any other time of year.
Advocates call it the “red zone.” Jags realized she was part of that statistic.
Looking back at that time, Jags is angry that she had to experience sexual harm before knowing what her rights were, or what resources were available to her. “You shouldn’t have to be a survivor to know what to do,” she said.
Kate Lawson, who has led Xavier’s Title IX office since 2013, couldn’t comment on Jags’s specific case, citing federal student privacy laws, but lauded Jags as an “extraordinary and resilient activist.”
The goal of the Title IX office, Lawson said, is to provide students with “comprehensive information on their rights, options, and resources under Title IX and Xavier’s policies so that they can make the decisions that are best for them.”
“It is normal and common for their assessment about what feels right for them to change and evolve over time- sometimes over days, weeks, months, and even years."
Research about the red zone has been around since at least 2007, when the Department of Justice released a report detailing that more assaults happen in the first several months of school reopening. As on-campus activities resume in full force for the first time since fall 2019, advocates of survivors are worried that the risk of sexual violence will be even greater than in previous years.
“We’re entering what we’re calling the ‘double red zone’ this year,” said Kenyora Parham, executive director of the advocacy group End Rape on Campus. Freshman, sophomore and transfer students will be adjusting to new environments and social activities after coronavirus disrupted colleges and universities last year.
New and younger students are especially vulnerable because they are still learning campus culture and don’t have a strong support system, which can make them feel more susceptible to peer pressure, said Parham. This is particularly true for women. According to one 2019 study, which surveyed students at 33 major universities, about 1 in 4 undergraduate women say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching or penetration.
The current Title IX rules, established last year under then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, could also compound the risk, Parham added. The revised rules expanded the rights of the accused, giving them the right to a hearing with multiple panel members, as well as the ability to cross-examine their accusers.
Survivors and advocates criticized the new guidelines, which they said would discourage victims of sexual violence from coming forward.
The start of a new school year is a “scary time,” said Jags — students are adjusting to new housing, new roommates, new social groups. It’s a lot of change in a short amount of time.
“That already feels isolating, without any trauma,” she said.
Jags considers herself “one of the lucky ones.” She received financial help from her family, which let her finish her degree even when her grades suffered. She was supported by her professors and crucially, she had the guidance of an on-campus advocate, who worked at a local domestic violence shelter and followed up with Jags after she filed her report.
“They gave me the tools to continue making the school safe,” she said.
Experts agree that there are things college campuses can do to support students and prevent sexual violence on campus.
The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape organizes campus sexual assault prevention into four buckets: awareness, risk reduction, response and prevention, which is defined as “long-term solutions to social issues.”
Alexandra Brodsky, a staff attorney for Public Justice, who litigates civil rights abuses in schools, said it’s important for students to know upfront what their rights and what choices are available to them, whether that’s making a police report, filing a Title IX claim or forgoing either of those processes.
“They all need really different things in the wake of violence to stay in school, to keep learning,” Brodsky said. “There is no one-size-fits-all answer.”
In terms of raising awareness, “know your rights” trainings can inform students that they have the right to turn to their school for support and receive accommodations in the wake of sexual violence, or to pursue a criminal or Title IX investigation if they want to. Bystander intervention trainings also help students, faculty and staff recognize abuse and know what to do when they encounter it.
“Meaningful consent education can go a long way,” Brodsky added. The advocacy group Promoting Awareness/Victim Empowerment uses the acronym, “Consent MOVES” to help educate people about what “active consent” is: mutual, ongoing, verbal, enthusiastic and sober.
Parham, of End Rape on Campus, agrees that early outreach is crucial. She recommends trainings be held during orientation, when students first arrive to campus.
Survivors also need support services. This includes initiatives like free, accessible mental health care; academic accommodations, such as flexibility from professors; the ability to transfer dorms or housing; and a safety plan that the school works on with the survivor.
“For many students, the difference between them staying in school and dropping out is the provision of support services,” said Brodsky.
For example, Jags’s advocate told professors about her experience with intimate partner violence so she wouldn’t have to. The advocate also helped facilitate a safety plan so Jags would not have to do study hours with her attacker. She also had access to unlimited mental health sessions.
These advocates can also invite students to participate in different events and support groups to help them feel less isolated.
Survivors need to know that there’s a hand they can grab onto if they need it, but it’s more important to show them the tools, Jags said: “When someone’s that vulnerable or traumatized, the best thing you can do is empower them to make decisions.”
For her, being able to take command of her story and share it was crucial in reclaiming the voice Jags felt she had lost. She turned to writing after her assault and is currently pursuing her master’s at Sarah Lawrence College.
Parham emphasized focusing on the survivor’s individual needs, and understanding that one template will not work for every student: While some students need to share their story to heal, others will need legal assistance. Groups that are vulnerable to sexual assault, such as women, people of color, LGBTQ students and disabled students, may also need tailored support — such as mental health professionals who understand them and share their identities.
Then, there is the largest task of all: changing the culture of the campus.
End Rape on Campus, alongside other women’s and survivors groups, is rallying campus communities to push the Biden administration to change Title IX rules so survivors can feel safer coming forward.
Brodsky added that “sustained pressure” from students and alumni can be very effective in making sure schools are proactive about tackling gender violence. Sometimes, she said, institutions can stymie effective student leaders or movements simply by stalling, as students leave or graduate. But she’s seen campus groups effectively address this by planning ahead, preparing fall programming or campaigns during the previous semesters.
Understanding red zones and raising awareness are important, said Jags, but campus sexual assault “is a culture issue ” — one that universities have yet to truly reckon with. And in not doing so, she said, they’re abandoning their responsibility to students.
“If you can’t foster a safe student body, you’re not fostering a successful university.”