When something terrible happens, people nearby often follow one of two paths.
They take responsibility, maybe even more than is their due, to make sure it never happens again. Or they dodge it, pointing fingers at others or just lying low and hoping it all blows over.
Last week, after a lot of pain, lawsuits and, most likely, soul-searching, the people who run Utah State University have decided to take responsibility for making their campus — all of their campuses — a place that has no tolerance for sexual assault.
A place that will work to prevent sexual assault and work to make it easier — not easy, but easier — for those who have been victimized to come forward and receive the support they need.
Narrowly, it is the settlement of the case brought by former USU student Victoria Hewlett, who was raped at a USU fraternity house in 2015 and later discovered that her attacker had already been accused of sexual assault by five other women.
To close the suit against USU for its alleged failure to stop the attacker from striking over and over, not only will the university pay Hewlett $250,000, it will also bring her on as a member of a new committee that will monitor how the university administration handles such matters in the future.
More broadly, it is a plan announced Thursday by Hewlett and USU President Noelle E. Cockett to institutionalize activities that will seek to prevent sexual assault and deal with it when it happens.
One part of the plan is for USU to stop hiding behind the theory that it is not officially to blame for any wrongdoing that happens on the premises of any of its fraternity or sorority houses. Going forward, USU chapters will have to seek certification as campus activities, which will make it clear that the school does have the power, and the duty, to oversee what goes on there.
The university is to hire a full-time coordinator to make sure that the necessary training, policies and regular reporting the Greek houses are now responsible for actually take place.
Similar training, documentation and reporting practices will also be implemented and re-enforced campus-wide. That, hopefully, will mean that no one in the future will learn way after the fact — as Hewlett says she did — that there always was an official process for reporting and dealing with sexual assault.
The USU administration has decided that, rather than an environment where it seemed that no one was responsible for preventing and dealing with sexual assault, they want to create a place where everyone is responsible, knows their role, their opportunities, the places to go to get or give help.
Of course, it may also help that, in addition to the university’s leaders, other people are still paying attention. Those people include Hewlett and other past victims, the U.S. Department of Justice and, ahem, the Pulitzer-prizing winning journalists of The Salt Lake Tribune.
It’s still on us. All of us.