FAIRFIELD — Sacred Heart University was the only university in the state this year, and one of 53 nationwide, to receive a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to combat sexual assault on campus.

The $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) is meant to help “reduce domestic violence, date violence, sexual assault and stalking on campus,” and was awarded in the fall.

“We’re beginning to raise awareness, I think we have just started and that’s the whole focus of this grant — to be able to educate all the students, faculty and staff about sexual assault,” said Mary Jo Mason, director of student wellness services at Sacred Heart, whose office will help to oversee the grant.

Sacred Heart has hired a full-time employee, Kristen Eschwie, to take the lead on the grant’s planning and implementation over a three-year period. The first year will be dedicated to planning and the following two will focus on execution.

“Based on the grant’s timeline this is the planning period. We’re setting everything up so we can kick off with the next school year,” said Eschwie.

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How does Sacred Heart stack up?

In 2016, Sacred Heart had 5,428 students and reported 4 instances of rape.

Fairfield University’s enrollment was 4,032. The school reported no rapes, and six instances of sexual assault.

University of Bridgeport’s enrollment was 2,941. The school reported two rapes and one report of fondling.

Central, Eastern, Southern and Western Connecticut State universities, with a combined student body numbering 27,869, reported a combined 11 rapes and 11 reports of sexual assault/offenses.

*Student enrollment based on numbers from CollegeBoard

Among the school’s goals with the money are campaigns against sexual or domestic violence, date violence and stalking, improved training for public safety, sexual misconduct hearing panel members and faculty, staff, administrators and students, partnerships with community and campus groups, targeted efforts for underserved groups on campus.

“Colleges and universities should demonstrate to every student that these crimes will not be tolerated, that perpetrators will face serious consequences, and that holistic services are available for all victims,” a statement from the Department of Justice said.

College campuses are required by federal law to report crime statistics. According to Sacred Heart’s 2017 Campus Crime Report, four rapes were reported in 2016, up from zero in the preceding two years (there were three instances of forcible fondling in 2014 and 2015 combined and zero in 2016). Forcible fondling is defined as the touching of the private body parts of another person against that person’s will.

Mason said she doubts that instances of rape or sexual assault weren’t taking place on campus in earlier years, and doesn’t see the increase in reported assaults as a trend toward greater violence as Sacred Heart. Instead, she attributes increased reporting to better education as to what constitutes sexual assault and rape, partly as a result of the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter authored by then Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that highlighted the legal obligations of universities in investigating alleged sexual violence.

“The dear Colleague Letter came out requiring all schools to educate and make this a priority and put info out there,” said Mason. “I believe it was probably happening all along but many of the people who had experienced sexual assault didn’t know that it was sexual assault.”

Compared to a selection of other Connecticut universities, Sacred Heart reported a relatively low number of instances of rape and fondling, as did neighboring Fairfield University, which reported just six instances of sexual assault.

Certain schools, notably Trinity College, Wesleyan College, Yale University and Connecticut College, reported incidents at a much higher rate in 2016. Wesleyan College, with a student population of under 3,000, reported 24 instances of rape and two of fondling. Yale, with an enrollment of close to that of Sacred Heart, at roughly 5,500 students, reported 25 instances of rape and eight of fondling.

At the University of Connecticut, the state’s largest with a total student body exceeding 30,000, there were only 24 reported rapes and 13 reports of fondling across all campuses.

“The disparity in numbers may be due to other factors such as the campus climate, transparency about policies, procedures & resources for victims, and general availability of information & education about sexual violence as a whole,” said Kristen Hauser, chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), in Pennsylvania. According to the NSVRC, one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college.

Schools that have generated national attention for sexual assault scandals, like Penn State University, have often responded by strengthening policies and more accurately reporting figures, Hauser said.

“The bottom line is, when universities start doing the right thing you should expect to see the numbers increase, not decrease. Because this is such a vastly underreported crime, having more people feel safe enough to come forward is a good thing,” Hauser said.

In line with that thinking, Hauser viewed the number of incidents reported at Sacred Heart over the last year as a positive sign. She said the school and community should be heartened, not alarmed, if the number of reported incidents increases as the grant is implemented.

According to Eschwie, though Sacred Heart has made strides in the education of its students and staff and has not reported alarmingly high numbers of sexual violence on campus compared to other Connecticut schools, she hopes with the grant the university will continue to improve.

“Sacred Heart has grown a lot in this area in the past several years and has come forward in not brushing this stuff under the rug and talking to students,” said Eschwie. “I would love to see the students get more engaged.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justnijpapp1