As colleges and universities across New Jersey get ready to launch another academic year, efforts to combat sexual assault on and off campus are ramping up as well.

Considered the most under-reported crime in the country, sexual assault will likely rack up another sizeable batch of victims, courtesy of college life, over the next several months.

"We know that the first three months of freshman year are an incredibly vulnerable time for our students who are incoming," said Amy Hoch, associate director of counseling and psychological services at Rowan University.

Hoch estimated the university receives a report of sexual assault at least once a week, and not only from new students. The reports, however, could come months or years after the alleged acts.

Perhaps one of the strongest programs that can be offered by a university — and is offered by any institution contacted by New Jersey 101.5 for this story — is a "bystander intervention" initiative, Hoch said.

It helps teach students how to intervene when they come across an interaction, not involving themselves, that they believe is inappropriate.

"If we can teach people to move beyond their worries ... their personal attitudes like being more reserved or shy ... and do something, step in, we might actually send a signal to those perpetrators out there — listen, we have a more watchful eye; we're not going to just let you be able to get away with this so easily," Hoch said.

At all orientations, Montclair State University holds awareness sessions, and further programming is conducted throughout the academic year to address the issue's impact within certain groups such as first-year students and Greek organizations.

Stockton University, which is currently the target of lawsuits over alleged sex crimes off campus, will have Galloway Police Department officers on hand during Welcome Week to reinforce that township law enforcement is available as a resource to report incidents that may happen off Stockton's grounds. During Welcome Week, students attend workshops that specifically address sexual assault, consent, and Title IX, the federal law that requires schools respond appropriately to reports of sexual violence and sexual harassment.

The university this year will also emphasize a campus-wide "Culture of Respect."

Statistics show, according to the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, that up to 25 percent of college women and 15 percent of men experience sexual violence.

But, NJCASA Executive Director Patricia Teffenhart noted, the norms and behaviors that contribute to someone's likelihood to commit "such heinous acts" do not start in college.

"As a society, we contribute to the culture that reinforces the power imbalances that can lead to some people, with their new-found freedom, to cause harm to others," Teffenhart said. "Beginning to think and talk about consent, healthy gender norms, and other concepts can start way before our kids leave for campus."

At Rowan, Hoch said the prevention and awareness efforts in place appear to be making a difference in the willingness of victims to come forward.

"Similar to other campuses across the state, our numbers have gone up," she said. "That could be because we have more students on campus. It could also that students are hearing the message we're trying to send."

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