Assault prevention progress on campus

5 considerations for improving sexual assault policies

With headline after tragic headline, and demands from angry constituents and stakeholders to do more, colleges and universities are facing the harsh reality that just complying with the minimum requirements of the Campus SaVE (Sexual Violence Elimination) Act isn’t enough to prevent sexual assault.

What’s more is that it’s not only the Title IX coordinator’s problem. To borrow a phrase from the White House campaign, “it’s on us.” That is, the entire campus community must to work together to combat the problem.

“One of the best things about the national attention is that it’s no longer just one person on the campus doing the work. It takes a multidisciplinary approach,” says Kim Richmond, director of the National Center for Campus Public Safety.

In other words, a one-time lecture for incoming students is not going to end the sexual assault crisis, says Jane Stapleton, executive director of practice for the Prevention Innovations Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. The effort involves engaging students throughout their time on campus.

Sexual assault prevention and policy also involves reaching faculty and staff—“not just regarding their responsibilities as mandated reporters, but to let them know what they can do as bystanders to prevent sexual and relationship violence and stalking on campus,” she says.

While such challenges might seem insurmountable, especially for campuses without an army of full-time staffers leading the charge, the big question to ask is this: Is my institution doing enough?

To evaluate how a campus’ sexual assault prevention efforts compare to schools employing the best practices in the field today, administrators must examine five key questions.

1. Is the messaging really impacting students?

In the classroom, on the athletic fields and in collaboration with faculty and community partners—those are the places where officials at Lasell College in Massachusetts make a concerted effort to reach the masses with a sexual assault prevention message that’s anything but sugar-coated. Students watch eye-opening films that are sometimes difficult to get through, but put a human face on sexual assault, for instance.

All assault prevention activities on Lasell’s suburban Boston campus are student-led and student-driven, with guidance from Title IX Coordinator Jennifer O’Keeffe and legal studies professor Karin Raye, who is also an attorney and domestic violence activist.

“Some schools have top-down mandates, but we have mobilized the students across campus,” says O’Keeffe. “When it’s them talking about the importance of their work, it’s contagious.”

For example, criminal justice majors in Raye’s class created an #ItsOnUs video. “Students wrote the script, made a plan around it, worked with a filmmaker and recruited people all over campus to be part of it,” says O’Keeffe.

The result was PSA-like, but because it was so inclusive of different student body members of all races and orientations, as well as faculty and staff members, it got people on campus to talk more openly about the issue—and inspired a surge of involvement and interest from various student groups.

The project also garnered outside feedback and attention, including a retweet by the White House.

It’s especially important for campuses with limited resources to avoid spending time and money on programs that won’t resonate, says Michelle Issadore, assistant executive director of prevention and advocacy for the Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA), a professional organization formed in 2011.

Disseminating information via popular campus groups and co-sponsored events is an effective way to connect with different target audiences, as Lasell College’s efforts have proven. “From older students to LGBTQ students to transfer students, there’s a whole host of audiences and ways to shape your message,” Issadore says. “You don’t want to leave anyone out.”

2. Have we implemented a bystander intervention program?

Sexual assault programming should show the entire community how to stop potential assaults before they start. Bystander intervention awareness—which puts the focus not on the potential victim or perpetrator, but rather anyone able to observe a behavior—is the place to start.

These programs are designed to help people identify potential scenarios that might lead to sexual violence (for instance, someone who is visibly drunk and leaving a party alone).

Participants are taught intervention strategies, such as: creating a distraction (e.g., telling your friend you want her to walk with you back to the dorms); reporting to someone, such as a campus official, who can help; or intervening directly by stopping an assault in progress.

Connecticut College implemented the nationally recognized Green Dot bystander intervention program. One component is a talk given to all incoming students at freshman orientation, which satisfies part of the federal mandate, but there is an optional six-hour Green Dot training course. About 28 percent of the class of 2016 opted to complete the training; the national participation average is about 15 percent.

“If someone in a business suit comes in and says these are the regulations and the policies, students aren’t listening to that,” says Darcie Folsom, director of sexual violence prevention and advocacy at Connecticut College. “Letting students know that they can be part of the solution is more effective.”

The Green Dot philosophy—that reducing violence requires a community approach—has been embraced by various groups on campus, such as the student engagement office, residence halls and athletic teams.

The admissions office has taken on the messaging as well, offering Green Dot parent workshops, where incoming families can ask questions about sexual assault statistics and learn what the campus is doing to combat the problem.

Efforts like this “show that we’re not shying away from the conversation,” says Folsom. “Parents appreciate the fact that our college is being proactive.”

Whether an institution chooses Green Dot or another bystander intervention program (such as Bringing in the Bystander or One in Four), it should be grounded in scientific research and evidence-based evaluation.

“What’s happened with the federal mandates is that a cottage industry has developed to meet the demand,” says Stapleton, adding that not all solutions are as effective as slick salesmanship make them out to be.

When evaluating programming, Stapleton recommends finding out what research informs the prevention strategy and whether it has been scientifically evaluated, as well as how the target audience informed development of the program.

It’s also important to know that an increase in reporting rates is not necessarily a bad thing. “When we first started Green Dot, we were very clear with the administration to say our numbers are going to increase,” says Folsom. “We would rather see a higher number because that means students are more comfortable coming forward.”

3. Have we provided adequate training opportunities for faculty, staff, RAs and others?

“It’s hard to find a person on campus who interacts with students who might not be the recipient of a disclosure,” says Jill Dunlap, director of equity, inclusion and violence prevention for NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Take, for instance, the financial aid office—it might not seem like a logical place for a student to report a sexual assault. But, Dunlap says, one student who recently asked for a tuition refund revealed that she wanted to withdraw from a class she shared with someone who had sexually assaulted her.

Although institutions are required by law to train everyone on campus who is a mandated reporter (essentially all responsible employees), not enough is being done to ensure each person truly understands their obligations, says O’Keeffe. “It’s important to teach people how to help students who are disclosing. That means knowing the confidential resources on campus, and knowing what to say and what not to say.”

People tasked this responsibility may also need counseling, Dunlap says. “In our struggle to do right by students, we sometimes forget the emotional toll on the people who take care of these students.”

4. Are we taking advantage of local resources to help fill in the gaps?

Many smaller institutions don’t have dedicated sexual assault prevention offices, but there’s almost always local community resources they can turn to.

“We do everything in collaboration with our partners from the community,” says Raye at Lasell, which has just over 1,700 students.

For example, O’Keeffe and staff members from the campus counseling and health services offices recently visited the local hospital, where the sexual assault nurse examiner spent three hours taking them through the exact process a student would experience during a sexual assault examination.

“To not connect with community partners would be a real loss,” she says. Other places to turn might be a local rape crisis center, domestic violence shelter or trained victim advocates.

5. Have we tried supplementingour assault prevention efforts with technology tools?

Yes, there’s an app for assault prevention. In fact, there are many campus safety mobile apps, designed with features that include the ability to text tips to campus police, request a safe ride or locate a safe walking path, and gain instant access to school Title IX policies and a list of campus resources.

Putting such resources at students’ fingertips is an important component in the future of prevention, says Jay Gruber, chief of police and assistant vice president for public safety at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

“This generation is very focused on smartphone-based communication, and I don’t think some students are comfortable with calling 911. They want to remain anonymous to some degree,” he says.

As such, his campus is one of about 200 schools to integrate the LiveSafe app, which founder Shy Pahlevani says has a 50 to 80 percent student adoption rate within one year of being introduced.

Two weeks after it was implemented at Georgetown, a female student used the real-time tip texting feature to discreetly report an indecent exposure. Police quickly responded and made an arrest.

For anyone considering such technology (CampusSafe is a similar app being used by the Rochester Institute of Technology, among others), Gruber suggests finding one that’s a good fit for your campus. He was drawn to LiveSafe because it was developed using student focus groups and in collaboration with campus safety officials, plus it’s customizable.

“An app like this can benefit your university in many ways, and the cost is about the same as installing one blue light phone,” says Gruber.

The takeaway: Empower students and staff by making safety information and policies mobile-accessible, and providing an option to report anonymously.

Despite the strides that campuses have made, Richmond says some campuses focus solely on what they need to do to be in compliance. Yet, she sees some institutions genuinely interested in keeping their students safe and supporting them should they become victims of crime.

Going above and beyond the requirements is the only way that real cultural change can happen. Says Issadore of ATIXA: “Thankfully, many schools are rising to that challenge.”


Dawn Papandrea, based in Staten Island, New York, is a frequent contributor to UB.


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