By Joanna Tavares
A not-so-new pandemic is sweeping Stony Brook University and other college campuses nationwide. Sexual harassment cover-ups are becoming almost as frequent as the act itself.
The mental and physical dangers of sexual harassment and assault are no secret, but an additional danger lies in the silence.
Last semester, the university came under criticism because of a sexual harassment scandal that involved a cover-up so well executed that almost no one knows for sure what really happened. What we know is that Jim Fiore, the former athletic director at Stony Brook, was ousted from his position very quietly. Anonymous allegations and rumors that it had to do with sexual harassment are common, though University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., Senior Director for Title IX and Risk Management Raul Sanchez and university public relations staff have all refused to comment on the matter.
Wendy Murphy, a risk management lawyer, came to Stony Brook two weeks ago to participate in a discussion on Title IX and its relation to sexual assault and harassment. Murphy explained that Fiore’s quiet dismissal – complete with a large severance package — was harmful for everyone on campus.
“Openness and accountability is the way you stop sexual harassment,” said Murphy. “Anybody who is not sanctioned for very bad behavior thinks they’re getting away with it and will probably do it again.” Murphy went on to describe sexual misconduct as a pandemic.
Christine Szaraz, a counselor at the Center for Prevention and Outreach (CPO), said about two-thirds of student population experience sexual harassment in some form. However, only less than 10 percent report.
“If we as individuals ignore it, we are saying that it’s okay and we’ll put up with it,” said Szaraz. “That is where the danger of not addressing it really comes into play.”
When a student is sexually harassed, especially by an authority figure, he or she may be too scared to report the crime for fear of repercussion. According to a research study published by the American Association of University Women called Drawing the Line: Sexual Harassment on Campus, “to students, sexual harassment is part of college life and just the way it is.”
By covering up a scandal such as Fiore’s, Stanley may have protected the institution’s reputation, but he harmed many others in the student population as well as the community.
“It’s the danger of all the bad apples getting the good press,” said Szaraz.
When sexual harassment goes unpunished, it creates distrust in leadership and leads to a loss of faith. Without trust that leadership address these criminal actions willingly, people will either take themselves out of the system or suffer through it.
Both professionals and students lose in these situations, Szaraz added.
“It leads to the potential that people can be demoralized,” she said.
At the start of this semester, Sanchez distributed posters to building managers to post that read, “Hear it. See it. Report it.” The cover-up and contract buyout that Stony Brook engaged in almost five months ago now raises doubts as to how seriously the university will take these reports and whether the administration cares more about prestige or the people it is responsible for.
Programs do exist for members of the Stony Brook community who have been sexually harassed. Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS deals with cases and CPO support and resources whether a victim chooses to report or not.
CAPS phone number: (631) 632-6720
CPO website: studentaffairs.stonybrook.edu/cpo/index.shtml