A Response to Recent On-Campus Assault

TW: Rape, sexual violence.

On Halloween, a student was raped on campus. The assault occurred in a full parking lot in the middle of the day. As students and as a community, we should be horrified. We should be appalled that something so serious could take place so easily. But more importantly, we should be willing to take measures to prevent things like this from happening again.

How did this happen in broad daylight on a campus full of people? Technology may have something to do with it. In the age of digital devices, it is easy to use technology to temporarily escape from the present moment. Whether it is incessantly checking your Facebook feed or blocking out our surroundings by putting in headphones, we are all guilty of avoiding mundane moments by distracting ourselves. The inadvertent effect of this is that we are blind to the environment surrounding us.

While we would all like to imagine ourselves as skilled multitaskers, the reality is that we suffer from inattentional blindness. Inattentional blindness occurs when our minds focus on certain details and block out others. As author David McRaney puts it, “you are ‘blind’ to that which you are not attentive.” The implication of inattentional blindness is that when we are on our phones — texting, playing games or listening to music — we become distracted and unaware of what’s going on in the immediate world around us. Rather than a cohesive campus community, we have become a fragmented collection of bodies.

This is not at all to say that anyone is to blame or should feel guilty for the assault on Halloween. It would be unfair and unproductive to say anyone other than the attacker bears any responsibility for what happened. However, the fact that a sexual assault could take place in the afternoon on a crowded campus should gravely worry us. We should pause and make a conscious assessment of how disconnected we are from our environment. We all could pay a little more attention.  

Another thing to consider is how the assault was immediately responded to. According to Sergeant Garth Smith of the campus police, the incident took place around 12:15 p.m. A text message alert, however, was not sent out to students and faculty until later in the afternoon, around 2:50 p.m. The text announcement did not mention that the suspect was armed with a handgun.

This was an aggravated incident involving an armed suspect on a college campus. At a bare minimum, students should be informed immediately that there was an armed person in the area. It is unsettling that such crucial information took hours to disseminate. While it is not clear how much time passed between when the rape occurred and when it was reported, it seems safe to say there was a delay between the report and students learning of it. Students have a right to know when there is a danger on campus, and U police and administrators have an obligation to get this information out in a timely manner.

There are no broad-brush solutions to preventing rape. There is no magic formula for ensuring something like this never occurs on our campus again. There are, however, small and seemingly unrelated cultural changes that, if implemented, would make our university a more safe and hospitable place. It is terrifying that someone was raped under the sun in a parking lot filled with people coming in and out. Scarier yet that no one saw anything. The takeaway from this is that we need to be a more aware, more observant and more present student body.

Put down your phone and pull out your earbuds. Put away your digital devices and resist sending that tweet during your commute to class. You may think you can text, walk and still be sentient to the world around you, but the reality is that you are heavily distracted. In the short time you are being distracted, you may miss something that could change a student’s life forever. It just isn’t worth it. 

letters@chronicle.utah.edu