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Student Government launches Red Zone Initiative to battle sexual assault on campus

Gaby Aleman, a sophomore representative from CHispA, speaks out against sexual violence at the Stand with Survivors Rally at the Peace and Justice Plaza on September 16, 2016.
The Red Zone Initiative, spearheaded by UNC Student Government, seeks to battle sexual assault on campus, especially during the early months of the school year.

The fall months on UNC's campus come with tailgates, cocktails and the crazed partying of syllabus week.  

They're also the months of the year with the highest rates of sexual assault and gender-based violence. 

More than ever before, students are checking the license plate of an Uber before they accept a ride, finding a bathroom in groups and walking home at night with keys in their hands as a defense mechanism, Kayla Baresich, a Delta advocate for the Greek community, said. 

UNC Student Government is working to fight this trend and change this problematic culture with their recently revitalized coalition, the Red Zone Initiative. 

The amount of sexual assaults reported on campus has been increasing every year, Malin Curry, undergraduate secretary of UNC Student Government, said. 

In response to the persistent problem, Student Government is reinforcing and strengthening The Red Zone Initiative, a coalition of student organizations designed to raise awareness of the issue and provide support for those affected. 

More than 50 percent of all sexual assaults on college campuses occur during the fall semester, from August through November, according to the Undergraduate Executive Branch's website. First-year women, non-binary individuals and women of color are especially at risk, said Serena Singh, co-director of the Red Zone Initiative. 

First-year students in general are more vulnerable because they are in a new environment and under a lot of social pressure to go out and have fun, Singh said. There is a greater chance that they have not been properly educated about the risk of sexual assault, she said. 

But Singh doesn't want to only shock students with facts and statistics.

“However, it’s important to note that we don’t want to fear-monger when discussing this issue,” Singh said. “We don’t want to scare people — we want to empower them to fight this.”

The Red Zone Initiative tackles three main themes: teaching students about affirmative consent, helping them avoid harmful actions and increasing active bystander intervention and support. 

To raise awareness across the student body, the initiative is pairing with a variety of organizations on campus, including Arts Everywhere, The Black Student Movement and the Campus Climate Coalition. 

The initiative will be organizing several events on campus throughout the year, including a “Red Zone Day” in October, Curry said.

In past years, Singh said the initiative's efforts have been duplicated and divided across campus and were too focused on events rather than long-term activation. Emphasizing the three themes and focusing more on changing the campus climate long-term has revitalized the initiative, she said. 

“This year, the Red Zone Initiative is taking a collaborative approach to its work,” Lucy Russell, co-director of Campus Climate Coalition, said. “It will be action-oriented to mobilize students to be aware of the gender-based violence epidemic on campus and to equip them with the tools to create a stronger University together.”

To frame the issue in a more positive way and remove blame from survivors, the initiative is emphasizing more supportive and inclusive language, Singh said — for example, “this is how not to perpetrate," rather than “this is how you need to protect yourself."

“We never say ‘victims,’ we say ‘survivors,’” Singh said. “We never blame anything on an outfit or on the fact that someone went out one night because everyone should be allowed to have fun.”

Singh said changing the language is important for the narrative surrounding sexual assault and gender-based violence to become more empowering and impactful. 

“​There is not one demographic that solely experiences gender-based violence — it is a reality that affects people along sexuality, gender, racial and ethnic identities,” Russell said. “We should not put people into categories as ‘victims’ or ‘perpetrators,’ but instead realize that this gender-based violence is a pervasive issue that affects people in many ways.”

Support can also be found through various organizations on campus and online at the University's main portal for safety resources, safe.unc.edu, Curry said.

“We want to let first-year women and all students know that people are taking notice of this issue and we are working to provide solutions,” Curry said.

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Baresich said she hopes this initiative will make students more aware of the resources available to them.

“It is a dark reality that sexual assault will still happen no matter what,” Baresich said. “But resources in the community and on campus will really go a long way in helping to support survivors and educate students, and just knowing about them is extremely important.”

The term “Red Zone” is problematic in itself, Singh said, because we're always in a red zone. 

“In the spring, we are not in the clear,” Singh said. “The Red Zone is just a defined period to raise awareness so we can go into the spring feeling better.”

This year, Singh said everyone will be included in the conversation. 

But Russell said there is still a lot of work to be done.  

“We should be creating a campus where healthy relationships and sex are the norm —  not the exception,” Russell said. “Everyone deserves fulfilling and positive relationships at Carolina.” 

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