‘The Red Zone’ Poses Increased Risk of Sexual Assault for Female Freshmen

One in five female students are sexually assaulted while in college, according to a White House report. Photo interpretation by Samantha Hearn.

Lindsay Buchanan and Rhiannon Gilbert contributed to this report.

Photos by Samantha Hearn. 

On Sept. 2, just a week after classes began, a female resident of a mostly freshman dorm was outside her room after dark.

She was aware of the danger of walking alone, but the young woman believed she was being careful.

Suddenly, a man grabbed her from behind. The woman recalled his “deep, raspy voice.” According to the report filed with Middle Tennessee State University campus police, the man told the woman that he had been watching her and told her, “I’ll be back for you” before getting spooked, perhaps by a passerby.

The student has since dropped out and is going to a community college near her home.

As a matter of policy, Sidelines does not name victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault.

“She didn’t feel comfortable being on campus anymore,” said the young woman’s brother, who remains a student at MTSU.

This freshman woman’s experience is, unfortunately, not uncommon, according to a national study The White House released in April.

“Not Alone,” the first report of The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, says one in five female students are sexually assaulted while in college.  Since the fall semester began, three female students at Middle Tennessee State University have reported incidents that are being investigated as sexual assaults.

For freshman women, the threat of sexual assault is much higher, especially during the first weeks of school, when many students are away from home and parental supervision for the first time in their lives, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Justice.

There’s a name given to the span of time. It’s often called “the Red Zone,” or “the Red Window.”

One in five female students are sexually assaulted while in college, according to a White House report.
One in five female students are sexually assaulted while in college, according to a White House report.


Researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Justice prepared a report in April, “Preventing Sexual Violence on College Campuses: Lessons from Research and Practice,” for use by The White House Task Force. Sarah DeGue, one of the report’s authors, cites a 2013 study that finds a high correlation between sexual assault and alcohol use.

MTSU’s Title IX Coordinator Marian Wilson, who works to develop and coordinate efforts aimed at preventing sexual violence and other forms of assault, says that women living on and off campus should take extra precautions while adjusting to their first college school year, including walking with a trusted group after dark and becoming acquainted with new roommates.

Wilson also recommends developing a “safe word” among friends when going out, especially when alcohol is involved, that signals to the group that someone feels in danger or has had too much to drink.

“Sometimes new students may not always have a support system when beginning college,” Wilson said. “[Everyone] is new and having to get used to meeting new people, making new friends and finding who their core group of support is going to be.”

Wilson says it takes some students six weeks or longer to do this.

Debra Sells, Vice President for Student Affairs, says students acquire many new vital skills during their first year at college. How to get up in the morning, how to be responsible in regard to homework, and most importantly, how to stay safe.

“First, students need to take responsibility for their safety,” Sells said. “We can put into place every piece of technology or policy, but a student who decides that they value convenience over their security will circumvent those every time.”

Sidelines interviewed nine freshman women living on campus. All nine claimed to feel safe on campus, although five of the nine admitted to carrying pepper spray as a form of protection.

Not all students interviewed were aware of “the red zone,” including Page Smith, a freshman education major.

“I feel like freshman are kind of put on display,” Smith said. “Kind of like we’re more vulnerable because we’re new out here and that we’re kind of taken advantage of.”

The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault has asked each college to conduct a climate survey and encouraged them create a plan of action to prevent cases of sexual violence. According to Wilson, MTSU has been working on this long before the federal government called them to do so.

“The White House, federal government and many of the states and institutions have all indicated that we have not paid as much attention to sexual assault and sexual misconduct on our campuses,” Wilson said. “For many of us, we have been working on this for a long time by speaking at CUSTOMS, the orientation for freshman and transfer students, on this issue.”

In an effort to prevent sexual assault, MTSU is bringing lecturer and activist Tony Porter to share his “A Call to Men” initiative.

The event will be hosted by the school’s June Anderson Center for Women and Nontraditional Students in partnership with the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Program in Rutherford County and is “aimed at engaging men in the community about their responsibility to help solve this growing problem,” according to organizers. Porter will speak on Oct.21, 6 p.m., at the James Union Building.

Female students, faculty and staff can also sign up for R.A.D., which stands for Rape, Aggression, Defense, a class sponsored by MTSU Police.

Additionally, Sells says the school has recently implemented a new smartphone app called “Rave Guardian.” The app features a panic button that routes directly to campus police. It also allows app users who intend on walking somewhere to set a timer. If they don’t arrive at their destination in the allotted time, police will be alerted automatically. She says a small amount of students have utilized it so far.

“The number one thing students have to realize is that their safety is part of their responsibility,” Sells said. “We can’t do it for them, but we will partner with them.”

For more campus and community news, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_News.

To contact news editor Max Smith, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com

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  1. Cheyenne Parker
    September 23, 2014

    Im glad there was an article focused on this subject. I personally can really relate to being taken advantage of, especially under the influence, and especially as a freshman. Here at this University one thing that i noticed and appreciate was that as a woman’s student athlete here our entire team was required to be talked to by the Athletic Association, informing us of certain procedures and precautions that should be done when out on the town or even just walking alone on campus at night. We were also told who we can speak to if we ever feel threatened or sexually offended in anyway. My only hope is that this will be done for all incoming freshmen as some type of seminar. Because everyone needs to be aware, men and women. No means no, drunk or not, sober or not. This is obviously becoming more recognized as the numbers of assaults increased. It is only unfortunate that this has to happen once things have gotten to an ultimate high.

  2. Mark Bell
    August 27, 2015

    Very well put together piece, Sidelines editor and staff. It is unfortunate that this incident resulted in this young lady not feeling safe to continue her studies at MTSU. I’ve always felt like MTSU is one of the safest campuses around. I lived on MTSU’s campus the first two years I attended university and I thankfully was never a witness to any kind of behavior like this (and this wasn’t decades ago, as I attended MTSU between 2004 and 2008), although my dorm room was broken into my sophomore year by some maniacal drunkard who was never caught. He stole nothing from me, but took my roommate’s entire DVD/Blu-Ray Disc collection. I also had my bike stolen my freshman year. Like I said, I was never witness to anyone taking advantage of young girls, but I also had the not-so-normal circumstances of not having to reside in the freshman dorms my first year there. I roomed with my best friend at the time, who was a junior transfer from a community college. I did not live on campus my junior and senior years at MTSU and I was witness to a lot more negative incidents off-campus, though I was thankfully not a victim of crime my last two years in college. I did see others victimized at house parties, including a couple on frat row. I also saw serious fights and heard gunshots when I lived at an apartment complex on South Rutherford Boulevard. Unfortunately, college campuses can attract some unsavory characters, but I never let it deter me from attending the university that I love to this day. I can definitely understand how someone can make the opposite choice and choose to leave the campus, though.

    I am curious about one thing. Is it legal to carry pepper spray or other chemical agents meant for personal defense on MTSU’s campus? I know guns are out of the question, but could someone give us a definitive answer on whether chemical agents are allowed? Are there any other options one has to defend himself/herself while living on campus?

  3. Mark Bell
    August 27, 2015

    I should clarify, the things that happened at those house parties were very degrading to the people involved, but I’m not sure that they crossed the line of being illegal.