Reports of sexual assaults at Southern Oregon University are skyrocketing, but to school officials and Sen. Ron Wyden, that's a good thing.
The statistics show students are more comfortable coming forward, said the Democratic senator, who was on campus Tuesday to talk to SOU staff members and students about the university's approach to handling cases of sexual assault.
"What I've heard today from the student leaders is that the numbers have gone up to a great extent because students have felt confident that they're going to be treated fairly," said Wyden, who is promoting legislation in Congress that would improve universities' responses to sexual assault.
SOU fielded just 12 reports of sexual assault in 2011 and eight reports in 2012. Numbers shot up in subsequent years, hitting a high so far of 97 reports in 2015, according to Angela Fleischer, a confidential adviser at SOU who explains options to victims and guides them through whichever process they choose.
Victims can choose to seek only support resources, trigger a university administrative process or report a sexual assault to law enforcement, she said.
If a victim chooses the administrative process, information is gathered and a person found to be a perpetrator could face sanctions ranging from education about the problem to suspension or expulsion, Fleischer said.
Wyden said SOU is leading the way in its response to sexual assault and serves as a model to other colleges and universities in the nation.
The university's Campus Choice program addresses domestic violence, dating violence and stalking, in addition to sexual assault.
Campus Choice has some similarities to the Ashland Police Department's You Have Options Program for sexual assault reporting, which also gives victims more control in how their cases move forward. APD's program, too, has garnered national attention.
Fleischer said victims are often reluctant to come forward if they believe a criminal investigation will automatically be triggered.
"They say, 'I don't want to ruin the person's whole life.' But they also say, 'I don't want this to happen to someone else,' " she said.
People who commit sexual assault often engage in serial predatory behavior and have multiple victims, according to Ashland police Detective Carrie Hull, founder of You Have Options.
Hull said while many victims have negative experiences after reporting sexual assault, many also have positive experiences. She said law enforcement agencies and universities can learn from those positive experiences and use them to craft their responses.
Hull said giving victims more control allows organizations to get a better, more realistic view of the prevalence of sexual assault.
"Institutions want to be in control. If we give that up, we get so much more intelligence on what is happening," she said.
In addition to explaining options to victims, SOU staff members and students are working to reduce sexual assaults by educating everyone on campus.
First-year students especially are targeted with information on consent, healthy relationships, bystander intervention and similar topics, said SOU Women's Resource Center Coordinator Riah Safady Gooding.
"We are trying to change belief systems and culture," she said.
Turning to events on the national stage, Wyden said he is disturbed by a recently released recording of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump bragging about being able to kiss women and grab their genitals without their consent because he is a wealthy, successful celebrity.
Wyden said Trump's attitude reflects an outdated, twisted sense of entitlement that men in power can abuse women.
"This set of events in the last few days once again reaffirms in my mind that real men don't engage in this kind of abuse," Wyden said.
For more information about SOU's Campus Choice program, see www.sou.edu/campuschoice.
For more information about the You Have Options Program, visit www.reportingoptions.org.
— Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.