With students returning to local colleges this week, school administrators are girding up to meet their needs -- from providing dining hall meal cards to teaching them how to deal with sexual assault on campus.

Sexual assault on college campuses, because of recent changes in the law and more reporting of assaults nationwide, is a bigger issue this year than it has been in the past. And colleges are scrambling to address it.

"It's on everyone's mind. It's certainly on our minds," said Larry Wielk, dean of students at Sacred Heart University. "At not any one of the (freshman) orientation sessions I spoke at this summer did I not get a question about this."

Wielk said he has had two or three reports of sexual assaults at SHU in recent years, about the same as Fairfield University Dean of Students Karen Donoghue said she believes have occurred at that school.

Crime statistics are required to be disclosed by law, and both universities have links to them on their websites. Fairfield University reported four forcible sexual offenses in 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, and Sacred Heart reported no forcible sexual assaults for the same year on any of its campuses.

Reluctance to report

But the differences in reporting may have much to do with reluctance to report on-campus assaults -- many student victims do not want to report incidents of sexual misconduct at all. And some victims choose just to inform a few people, but not others. Both Donoghue, Wielk and Detective Kerry Dalling of the Fairfield police said it is up to the victim of a sexual assault to decide to whom they want to report an assault: a college counselor? an outside agency? the police? their friends? And the majority of college victims typically decide not to pursue, or have others pursue, their attackers.

Rachel Lang, a 2014 graduate of Fairfield University and co-founder of The Gender, Sex and Sexuality Commons "safe space" for women on campus, explained it this way:

Sexual victims on a college campus usually know the perpetrators of the crime against them because they nearly always are students like themselves. After an assault, the victims are overwhelmed, and often concerned about what their own lives will be like in the closed environment of a campus if they reveal who attacked them. "They say, `I don't want them to get into trouble, I don't want them to get expelled,' " Lang said she has heard college assault victims say over and over.

Lang, who recently became a community educator staff member at the Center for Family Justice, a domestic violence and sexual abuse prevention organization in Bridgeport with a satellite office in Fairfield, wants to help students understand that it is possible for victims to report sexual crimes on campus and stay safe, and to access resources both at their schools and in the community. She said that Fairfield University has been working recently to educate students on procedures for reporting sexual assault as well as giving them information on resources available to victims.

"Fairfield University definitely stepped up to make their policy more visible," Lang said. The university was cited for best practices to prevent sexual assault in a report issued in May by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who returned to that campus this week to discuss proposed legislation he is co-sponsoring that is designed to ensure fewer campus sex assaults go unreported.

Thomas Pellegrino, vice president of student affairs at Fairfield University, said that the university has a memo of understanding with the Fairfield Police Department, and partners with it in handling sexual-assault cases. Fairfield University administrators, like other college administrators, are currently reviewing procedures to be sure they are in compliance with new laws about reporting and working with victims of sexual crimes, he said. But it is also up to each school to develop its own procedures.

"Schools are granted some autonomy in these kinds of cases," Pellegrino said. "Lawmakers have a role to play, but lawmakers can do only so much in that area. There's more that we can and should do in the area of education and intervention."

No follow through on many cases

Dalling, the sexual violence liaison for the Fairfield Police Department, agrees that most victims of sexual crimes on campus do not pursue their case with police, even if they do report an attack to on-campus counselors or security personnel.

"As a police officer, we would like to know about people on campus perpetrating these crimes, but you have to work with a victim and abide by their wishes," Dalling said. The police encourage victims to report and follow through in sexual assault cases, especially when the attacks "are drug-fueled," the detective said, so they can protect others from future assaults. The police also encourages victims or bystanders in sexual misconduct cases to contact police, even if they are not going to report a crime. "Just because you speak to a police officer doesn't mean that you have to have someone arrested -- you can call just for advice," she said.

Fear of reporting is one issue, but the issue of consent is a big part of the problem in on-campus sexual assault cases before they ever get to the reporting stage, college officials, the police, and students agreed. Understanding what constitutes consent to a sexual act is a concept that many students, male and female alike, do not understand, they said.

"What makes this extremely challenging is the issue of consent," Donoghue said. "When a person is drunk or under the influence of drugs, they do not have the ability to give consent," and that's become more of a problem in a "hook-up" culture, she added.

"A lot of people think that rape is force -- that's not the way sexual assault happens on campus if they're under the influence and not capable of consenting," Dalling said. "This really needs to be brought to the attention of young men and women. They're thinking, `I didn't rape her, she was flirting with me all night long.' Maybe so, but if she was so drunk she didn't consent you're going to end up in a police investigation," the detective said.

Lang agreed that there is confusion about what constitutes consent for a sexual act among her fellow college students and recent grads. "If we're drinking or drunk can we really give consent?" she asked. She referred to the CCC program (Consent and Communication Educators), a peer education program at Yale University and other schools as a program being used to help students understand the idea of consent.

Fairfield U., SHU stress education

Both Fairfield University and Sacred Heart have put plans into place to educate their students on the issue of consent and the other complexities of preventing and reporting sexual assault on campus. They are focusing first on incoming freshmen because the first-year students, especially women, are considered to be in "the red zone," during the first six to eight weeks on campus, Donoghue said, and the university must take care to educate and protect them as much as possible.

"No one really talks about it, but freshmen girls are most vulnerable," Lang said. "It's the most vulnerable that you'll be as a woman for experiencing sexual assault. You immediately trust people before you get to know them. You go with people you think are friends, and that's when it happens," the recent graduate said.

First-year students at Fairfield University participate in sexual abuse prevention programs when they come for orientation in June and again six weeks later, when they report to campus, Donoghue said. Programs are for both male and females, and include education on "bystander training" -- what to do if you see or suspect a sexual assault. The university sponsors a "Men to Men" program where upper class male students help younger men understand the issue, and also holds prevention programs for college athletes. Even high school students at Fairfield College Preparatory School, are part of the on-campus effort to prevent sexual abuse, the university dean said.

At Sacred Heart University, first year students are part of anti-sexual abuse programs initially, and the college addresses older students throughout the year, Wielk said. "We have really spent the better part of this last academic year revising our entire policy for sexual assault," the SHU dean said. "We have spent the last few months ramping up our training of students."

Sacred Heart also directs its education programs to students considered to be highest risk for becoming involved in sexual assault. "We will target what is commonly considered to be the highest risk groups, Greek life and varsity athletes," Wielk said.

Although universities nationwide are concerned about the connection of alcohol to sexual abuse, particularly in the fraternity and sorority culture, Fairfield University does not have fraternities or sororities, and while Sacred Heart does have them, there are no frat or sorority houses at Sacred Heart. "They are more community-based, service organizations," Wielk said. "Without having houses, it is more controlled."

Off-campus support

Both universities have formed a partnership with the Fairfield police and with the Center for Family Justice.

"Sexual assault on campus is very central to what our organization does," said Debra Greenwood, CEO and president of the Center for Family Justice. Her organization works with student resident advisors in college dorms, and with the schools' campus life staff to promote education and understanding of how to prevent sexual abuse. They also provide information on the resources available for those students who unfortunately become victims. Her center also works with students and staff at the University of Bridgeport and Housatonic Community College, as well as Fairfield and Sacred Heart universities, she said.

"We're working with all four schools to give them more support so that when something happens we can work together on the crisis and provide as many services as possible for them," Greenwood said. "This is an ongoing issue; it's a growing issue. Our job is really to get in front of it, to do prevention versus being a crisis intervention agency."

The goal for Fairfield University in combatting the problem of sexual assault on campus is the same as it is for all universities, Pellegrino said.

"The ultimate goal is to have an assault-free campus."

College students -- or anyone -- concerned about sexual assault can call a 24-hour hot line at the Center for Family Justice, 203-334-6154. The hot line is answered every day of the week. The center's web site, www.familyjusticecenter.org, also offers more information. The sexual violence liaison for the Fairfield police is Detective Kerry Dalling. The Fairfield Police Department's contact number is 203-254-2800.