NEW LONDON, Conn. — At Connecticut College, as at a growing number of campuses nationwide, students are encouraged to speak up if they hear remarks celebrating or condoning sexual aggression against women. In one training scenario, male students ask a peer if he really means it when he boasts of such conduct.
So when news broke that Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, had bragged of groping women and then trivialized it as "locker room talk," it felt to some students like a repudiation of their efforts.
"It's shocking that someone of that status thinks that that's OK," said Greg Liautaud, a senior who works with the college's sexual assault prevention office. "It does make the work harder, because our goal here is to shift culture."
Trump's caught-on-tape remarks about kissing women and grabbing their genitals are resonating deeply on campuses across the U.S. where sexual assault has been a long-standing problem. Many worried the comments, coupled with an apology that diminished their severity, could hinder efforts to educate youth when society too often brushes off abusive behavior as "boys being boys" or puts the blame on the victim.
At Connecticut College, the director of sexual violence prevention said the presidential contender's remarks likely would become fodder for small group discussions, as happened after a videotape surfaced of Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice hitting his fiancee.
"I hope that it doesn't set us back," Darcie Folsom said. "I hope it pushes us forward everywhere to know more work needs to be done."
The federal government, citing estimates that 1 in 5 women has been sexually assaulted while in college, has stepped up pressure on higher education institutions to improve their response to allegations of assault. More than 200 schools are under sexual violence investigations by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights ; noncompliance could lead to loss of federal funding.
Other institutions have faced lawsuits by women claiming officials were indifferent or hostile when complaints were lodged. The University of Connecticut, for example, settled for $1.3 million with five students, including one who alleged a campus police officer told her "women have to just stop spreading their legs like peanut butter" or rape will keep happening.
Stanford University professor Michelle Dauber said Trump's comments worsen the problem by serving to minimize sexual assault. Dauber is pushing a recall campaign of the judge who sentenced former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner to six months in jail for sexually assaulting a woman outside a fraternity house — a penalty widely criticized as too lenient. Turner was released last month after serving half that time.
"The rage you are seeing from women is not solely or even principally directed at Trump," Dauber said. "It is at the institutions and leaders who are failing to take action and hold him accountable. ... Women are sick and tired. Enough is enough."
Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security On Campus, hopes that the outrage turns into a "teachable moment" that bolsters on-campus efforts to combat assault and support survivors. "Talking about it as no big deal can normalize the behavior. We have to create a culture where victims and survivors are comfortable coming forward, and on a lot of campuses that hasn't happened."
That issue resonates deeply with Savannah Badalich. She's a graduate student at Columbia University in New York, and works part time with other colleges to increase awareness about sexual assault. At those sessions, she shares her personal story about being sexually assaulted during her sophomore year at UCLA and being too timid to report the incident.
"If the potential president of the U.S. is saying this is OK, what's to say that sexual violence is going to be taken seriously and that survivors are going to be treated with any respect?" she said.
Whitney Ralston, a University of Richmond junior who says she was raped, physically abused and stalked by a classmate, has been heartened by the strong negative reaction to Trump's comments. "This is a problem that needs to be addressed, and you can't just keep brushing it off as boys will be boys."
Ralston's alleged attacker accepted responsibility for violating the university's sexual misconduct policy, was ordered to stay away from her and told that further violations would result in suspension or expulsion. Ralston has filed a complaint with the DOE accusing the university of mishandling the case. Federal investigators are already looking into two other cases at the school for possible violations of Title IX, a broad statute that prohibits gender discrimination as well as sexual harassment and gender-based violence.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is also under federal investigation for its alleged mishandling of sexual assaults on campus, and the Trump furor reverberated across the campus this week, as students and faculty prepared to mark Relationship Violence Awareness Month. A complaint filed in August with the DOE accuses school officials of discouraging one sex assault victim from going to the police and said school investigators failed to get photographs documenting her injuries.
Shira Malka Devorah, a 20-year-old senior who works at the UMBC Women's Center, has refrained from sharing Trump's comments on social media because she didn't want to upset assault survivors. But she was horrified by the candidate's comments, and even more so his justification that they were merely locker room banter.
"Saying that it's OK to talk about things like this with your buddies and joke about hurting women and controlling women's bodies, it's reinforcing the notion that you have power over women ... that they're not human beings," Devorah said.
At Connecticut College, which has about 1,900 students, efforts have grown in recent years to fight sexual assault. Freshmen attend a mandatory orientation session on preventing sexual violence, speakers address the topic at panels for prospective students, and some 30 student volunteers promote a program that encourages students to see it as a collective responsibility to stop sexual assault. One of the overall aims is to teach people how and when to intervene through videos, role-playing and other exercises.
Trump's remarks were on the minds of many students this week as guides led small groups on tours around the picturesque campus on the Thames River.
"It undermines the progress that we've made," said junior Maggie Corey. "I think what he said only perpetuates the rape culture."