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November 25, 2014

At most schools resident assistants, or RAs, undergo one or two week trainings before school starts. (UWW ResNet/Flickr CC).

Nearly 90 colleges and universities are now under formal investigation for allegedly mishandling sexual assault cases on campus. Many aspects of the reporting process, and what happens afterward, are now under review - including whose responsibility it is to report cases of sexual assault. Many colleges put resident assistants, who live in dorms and mentor younger students, squarely in the middle of the issue.

Sophomore Cayla Brown is four months into her first year as an RA at Tufts University. She's considered a school employee, though she stressed she's not speaking on behalf of the university. She receives free room and board and lives with and oversees 25 freshmen and sophomores.

"I knew some of them before I was their RA, so it's a little interesting dealing with that," said Brown.

Most of her duties are pretty straightforward, from helping students get involved in extracurricular activities to dealing with roommate squabbles. But she's also expected to deal with more sensitive issues, like alcohol use, mental health and sexual assault. To prepare her, Tufts provided two weeks of mandatory training, including sessions on how to talk with someone who may have been sexually violated.

"You have to say certain things, and you don't want to touch them," Brown recalled from her training in August. "You want to ask before you sit down, ask before you do each step because it's an extremely sensitive situation and you don't want to overstep any boundaries or make your resident feel unsafe. You have to respect it as tenderly as possible."

Although Brown hasn't had to put that training into action yet, she says she knows exactly what to do if someone comes to her to talk about a sexual assault. She must tell the student early on in the conversation that she cannot keep the information confidential, and she must tell her supervisor.

"So if a crime does take place, I do have to report it," said Brown.

There's no federal law saying RAs must report assaults, but there is one requiring responsible employees - professors and student deans - disclose what they know. And most schools put RAs in that same category.

Katie O'Dair handles sexual assault at Boston College, where RAs are considered responsible employees and mandatory reporters.

“Campus sexual violence is a very difficult issue, but our students are prepared to do that," O'Dair said. “What we have found is that it doesn’t inhibit students from continuing to disclose, because we believe they are telling the RA for a reason, and that is to seek support and assistance.”

Related: MIT Survey Revelas Serious Sexual Assault Problem

But across town at Boston University, where 80 percent of undergraduates live in on-campus housing, some students didn’t even know about the reporting requirement at their school. They also said they wouldn't think to go to an RA to report sexual assault.

"I mean, my RA is really nice and everything, but I would go to someone I would feel more comfortable. Friends, upperclassmen, someone like that," said Gabrielle Chimney, a sophomore at Boston University.

"Honestly, my RA could be anyone and I probably wouldn't think of them to go to, they might probably be at the end of my list," said 19-year-old Marianne Lucas. "I associate them with broken doors or something in the bathroom."

"My RA, I’ve exchanged probably five words with her. She seems very nice, but I don’t know her last name. And she’s probably the last person I would talk to about such a personal thing like that,” said sophomore Erin O'Donnell.

All three of the Boston University sophomores said they don't think of their RAs as a resource for sexual assault.

And that's a missed opportunity, according to John Foubert of Oklahoma State. He works with colleges to prevent sexual assault, and he says RAs are in the perfect position to help.

"It provides a resource that is very close to the student, particularly if you're living in the same residence hall two doors down," Foubert said. "It gives students the opportunity to get support."

That opportunity also presents a real dilemma for RAs, compelling them to tell administrators about victims who may not be ready to come forward with their problems.

"The thing that colleges are really trying to balance right now is their duty to report something that happened and to take action, balancing that with the confidentiality needs of the survivor," Foubert said. "I think RAs are really right in the cross-hairs of that issue."

Back at Tufts, 19-year-old Cayla Brown, who's been an RA for a few months now, says she’s pretty clear on where her responsibility lies.

"I wouldn't have a problem with reporting it if I see that they were changed by that situation, like mentally altered, emotionally altered, by what happened to them. I think that light should be shed on that and it shouldn't be swept under the rug," Brown said.

Above all, Brown sees herself as an advisor before a friend, and feels that reporting cases, however difficult, is an important step toward fixing the problem of sexual assault on campus.

sexual assault, increasing access and success, Title IX

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