Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College

This is the time of year that many parents send their children off to college with the hope that they will learn, mature, become independent, have a great collegiate experience, but most of all, with the hope that their children will be safe. There is always the usual parent worries that their dorm-bound children will not eat healthy foods, not get enough sleep, or over-party, but one of their worst worries is that their children will be attacked sexually, or be urged on to attack others sexually.  Sadly, college surveys show that these kinds of attacks are all too frequent.  The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that between 20 and 25 percent of women will experience a completed and/or attempted rape during their college career.

Young women are urged by peers to go to parties, drink, and can find themselves cornered with sex foisted onto them.  Young men are also urged by some peers to party, drink, and corner young women and “score”—including the grotesque logic that a girl who allows herself to be cornered is operating with consent.  For some students, these occurrences may have already happened in high school or neighborhood parties.  It is a sad fact that in this “enlightened age” boys and young men are still, to some extent, expected to be dominant socially and sexually, and that girls and young women are still, to some extent, expected to be compliant socially and sexually. Even in the classroom this dominance/compliance pattern frequently plays out between boys and girls, men and women, teachers and students. Fortunately, many college campuses are addressing these problems vigorously, so that parents can feel more secure sending their children to a reasonably safe higher education experience.

Given that students need the safest environment in college, we are hearing criticisms by Safe-Space, a largely student-led movement. Some believe that students’ concerns amount to censorship and unreasonable over-protection; that students should be tough enough to withstand classroom instances of micro-aggression, traumatic written or visual material, or the triggering of traumas that have not fully healed.  Some students are certainly tough enough and some students are certainly not tough enough—for whatever reasons—their sensitivities are raw. Maybe some are immature. Maybe some have joined a cult of victimhood. But who gets to be the judge of these things? Certainly not teachers, administrators, or staff people—other than psychotherapists, who are trained to work with micro-aggression, trauma, triggering, immaturity, and unreasonable retreats into a victim identity.

I teach at a university that has a strong Safe–Space movement, an exemplary student mental health facility, an accessible women’s resource center, a male anti-rape group, and a campus security deployment that works 24/7 to keep our students safe in everything that they do.  I also teach in a conflict resolution program that is committed to setting ground rules, so that every student feels safe.  At the beginning of each course, ground rules are created by the students, so that respectful discourse is maintained by both the teacher and students, and that students can opt out of classroom experiences that go beyond mere intellectual discomfort into triggered, remembered, trauma.  This practice does not coddle students; rather it makes learning a positive experience for every student.  No student’s sensibility is expendable.

If you are a parent sending your child off to college this fall, you might check to see that your student is going to be attending an institution of higher learning that embraces many ways of helping your child have a safe and enriching experience.

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.