The red zone

Mason’s SSAC office looks to help affected students and prevent the spike of sexual assault


The red zone is the name researchers give to the first six weeks of a semester, when sexual assault incidents are at its peak. Mason is no exception to this occurrence, having sent timely warnings for three different cases of sexual assault alone in September 2016.

The red zone is a “period early in a student’s first year at college during which she may be at higher risk for unwanted sexual experiences” according to the 2008 study “Risk of Unwanted Sex for College Women: Evidence for a Red Zone,” published in the Journal of American College Health. In compliance with the Clery Act, Mason is obligated to tell the community when these incidents have been reported.

Though many studies of the red zone focus on the time frame of September to Thanksgiving break, this specific study added “substantial but incomplete” support for that red zone time frame and also suggested an increased risk during the winter semester as well.

Margaret Olszewska, the director of the SSAC, said that while sexual assault can and does occur throughout the year, its frequency is more pronounced in the beginning of the fall semester.

“The beginning of the school year is typically a time of exploration, experimentation and celebration. It should be a happy period when students are welcomed and immersed in new experiences,” Olszewska said. “Unfortunately, some individuals prey on others’ vulnerabilities and assault them.”

Emiko Ellis, a student and a staff member of the Student Support and Advocacy Center (SSAC) said that she absolutely believes in the red zone.

Ellis noted that she received three active calls when working a shift the first week of September, compared to zero active calls received during her shift the last week of November.

“I have experienced firsthand the influx of sexual assault reports our office processes. The 24-hour Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence Crisis Line had a noticeably higher call volume in the first few weeks of fall 2016,” Ellis said.

Though the red zone is in reference to the first few weeks of the semester, support services are available to Mason students year-round.

The crisis line is one of these resources, managed by peer advocates within the SSAC.

“Peer advocates are a group of very carefully selected, highly trained students that offer support and information to George Mason-affiliated survivors of sexual assault, harassment, domestic violence, stalking and intimate partner violence,” Ellis, a peer advocate as well as co-coordinator for the program, said.

Though information found on the red zone focuses more on female students, SSAC staff is trained to work with all Mason students.

“In my training, we discussed social stigma/stereotypes that affect different types of survivors and how that can affect the people we work with,” volunteer Peer Advocate Sam Arrighi said. “I haven’t been here long enough to speak about the type of people who come in, but I’ve spoken about my own assault/abuse I have suffered in training and it was well-received.”

Arrighi added that when he was applying to work with the SSAC, he knew of a male student in an abusive relationship that others didn’t take seriously.

“They didn’t understand how a person could be abused by somebody who was smaller than them, and a woman,” Arrighi said. “I hope that the work I can do as a part of this office helps to change people’s preconceived notions of what abuse and interpersonal violence is so that they can identify and be proactive in stopping abuse and violence towards men.”

Olszewska added that the stigma associated with male and LGBTQ survivors is real.  

“Incidents of interpersonal violence among these populations are chronically underreported.  SSAC encourages any student who needs assistance to stop by our Center, which is a supportive and judgment-free zone,” Olszewska said.

Some of the work of the SSAC includes linking students to other Mason-provided resources.

Ellis said they have connected students to departments like the detectives from the Mason Police Department who are taught to deal with trauma, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), Student Health Services and Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners at INOVA.

The SSAC offers educational information on a number of topics, not just sexual assault, as well as one-on-one support and sources for both on and off campus students, according to its website.

Along with survivor support, the SSAC invests in educational programs that could work as preventive measures.

Ellis also volunteers as a peer health educator, “trained to give presentations on healthy relationships, sexual health, bystander intervention and other health-related topics,” Ellis said.

Healthy relationships, stress management, nutrition, sexual assault, dating/domestic violence, stalking, drug and alcohol abuse and sexual health are all topics that the SSAC covers. It is located in SUB 1, Suite 3200.