Ann Arbor — She was walking home from her part-time job she had in college when a man appeared, pointed a gun at her and told her she’d better do what he told her.
Natasha Alexenko, then a 20-year-old student in New York, thought she was getting robbed, or that the man was running from police. Instead, he guided her back to her apartment building, where he raped and sodomized her.
“It was in that moment, I thought I was going to die,” said Alexenko, a New York resident who has since founded Natasha’s Justice Project, which works to end the national rape kit backlog. “We need to encourage more people to talk about issues around sexual assault. We are not talking about it enough. Perpetrators are counting on their victims remaining silent, and that’s how they continue to get away with it.”
Alexenko was among many speakers featured during the second summit aimed at making Michigan a leader in sexual assault prevention on college campuses.
The day-long event, known as “Inform. Empower. Prevent. Let’s End Campus Sexual Assault,” seeks to change the culture on college campuses through education, awarness and involving more people, such as students and other leaders. Held at the University of Michigan, the summit attracted advocates, lawmakers, athletes and students to address a problem on colleges campuses that until recently was stigmatized and not discussed openly.
For too long, too many people have not wanted to talk about sexual assault on college campuses but that must change, said Michigan first lady Sue Snyder, the brainchild behind the summits held this year and last year.
“Our college and university campuses are our students’ homes away from home,” said Snyder, acknowledging the issue is especially personal to her because her daughter, Kelsey, lives on the University of Michigan’s campus. “Students are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, family and friends This topic affects all of us.”
And sexual assault does not discriminate, added Ron Bellamy, head football coach at West Bloomfield High School.
“You have to let kids know: It can happen to anyone at any time,” Bellamy said.
Changing the culture around sexual assault isn’t easy but slowly things are happening in Michigan, said Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, D-Detroit, pointing to laws emerging in Michigan and the first Detroit Sexual Assult Kit summit.
“We’re not going to see changes, especially on college campuses, until men really understand no means no,” Dingell said, adding that it’s important that sports figures and other men are getting involved. “The culture is changing. People are saying it’s unacceptable and you are seeing that begin to translate.”
In recent years, sexual assault survivors on college campuses have grown increasingly vocal, publicly pressing their complaints that university officials ignored or mishandled allegations.
The federal government became involved in 2011, investigating more than 100 schools across the country. In Michigan, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Grand Valley State University and Alma College have been under investigation by the Office for Civil Rights.
Only MSU has had its case resolved. The investigation at UM continues because it began with federal officials looking at three cases and has since expanded to 180 involving thousands of documents.
Officials say it is the growing awareness that lead to the 461 reports of sexual assault last year at Michigan State University, more than double the year before, according to a report released this week.
On Friday, officials included student athletes, fraternity and sorority members, along with high school students, into the conversation about sexual assault.
Some highlighted the best practices of 23 university grant recipients of $500,000 announced last year, and available again this year, for innovative programs to combat sexual assault.
Meanwhile, a panel of sports community representatives set the tone for the day by outlining steps, such as bystander intervention training, that are being taken to bring more awareness to athletes, who have been at the center of some high-profile sexual assaults on college campuses.
Opening the panel was a video featuring DeAndre Levy, a linebacker for the Detroit Lions who played college football at the University of Wisconsin.
“We need to teach young men how to better understand this issue,” Levy said. “To all the students, I hope you take all that you have learned today and make a difference on your campus.”
Many weighed in on what could be done to end sexual assault on college campuses.
“We need to be strong what is right and what is wrong,” said Chris Creighton, head football coach at Eastern Michigan University. “And (sexual assault is) wrong. Period. It’s where we have the best chance of making a dent in this serious issue.”
Adults need to set expectations and students should have a greater responsibility in condemning such behavior, said Mary Wilfert, associate director of NCAA’s Sport Science Institute.
“They need to be empowered to create the culture they want,” Wilfert said.
Warde Manuel, UM’s athletic director, encouraged people to leave the conference and talk to others about sexual assault outside their inner circle.
“We have a role and responsibility,” Manuel said. “We need to leave this conference and talk to people about this issue of campus sexual assault ... Empower someone else in an effort to make sure others understand why this is imporant, how to handle it, how to help lead with it to start the process of eradicating this problem not only on our campuses but in our society.”