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USF conference addresses campus rape, heightened risks as school starts

TAMPA — He talked as if he was the hunter and they were the prey.

"You had to know your moment," the unidentified college male said in a documentary clip. "You had to have an instinct for it."

He explained how he scoped out "targets:" freshmen women, often inexperienced with drinking. Anxious. New to campus. He plied them with alcohol and led them to an empty room.

One woman was "so plastered" she didn't know what was going on. When she started to squirm, he pinned her down, his arm across her chest.

The squirming stopped when she passed out. That's when he raped her.

That disturbing account was part of a daylong conference on campus rape and gender equity held Thursday at the University of South Florida.

The timing of the event — just two weeks into the new school year — was intentional. Students on college campuses nationwide are in a period right now called the "red zone." That refers to the first 90 days of a new school year when sexual assaults most often occur and students, particularly freshmen women, are most vulnerable.

"We knew that this is that red zone time, so this is very strategically planned to get in front of students early on and get information out," said Crystal Coombes, USF's senior deputy Title IX coordinator.

The conference — titled "Title IX: Moving Toward Diversity & Equity" — was aimed at educating professionals and community members about the 1972 federal law that prohibits federally funded education programs from discriminating on the basis of sex.

The conference also corresponds with an initiative from President Barack Obama encouraging colleges to take a day in September to raise awareness about Title IX, sexual assault and prevention. It comes a year after the White House launched the "It's On Us" campaign to combat campus rape and promote bystander intervention. One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, according to figures circulated by the White House.

Under Title IX, students have the right to an education unencumbered by sexual violence or gender discrimination. All students have the right to file a complaint and have allegations equitably resolved in 60 days.

The conference brought national experts to USF to focus on transforming the campus culture, including instituting best practices for preventing and responding to rape and other violations of Title IX.

"The idea is when we're proactive in our education," Coombes said, "then we often have the ability to prevent."

USF Title IX coordinator Jose Hernandez said events such as "Walk a Mile in Her Shoes" and "Take Back the Night" help empower students and create a healthy campus.

"It's never enough," he said. "The more we do this work, the more people come forward."

This was the first year that the university included an hour-long session at orientation educating new students about Title IX, campus rape, and available services. The move was part of a new federal requirement mandating that all incoming students receive education about prevention and awareness of rape and sexual violence on campus.

Despite spending several years trying to be proactive in curbing campus rapes, USF is still one of more than 120 schools under federal investigation for possibly mishandling a sexual assault case. That investigation is still ongoing, but some institutions have already been found in violation of Title IX.

The U.S. Department of Education receives about 10,000 civil rights complaints a year, but not all of them lead to investigations. But investigating a complaint does not imply that the Office of Civil Rights has ruled on the merits of the case.

"Whether or not it becomes founded (doesn't) impact how this university is going to move forward," Coombes said. "We're already dedicated to this and making sure this campus is safe."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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