Higher ed elevates sexual harassment training

Colleges shift sexual harassment training for students and staff, from mandatory task to community-building tool.

Experiences of sexual violence and harassment continue to make headlines in this #MeToo era—with cases of sexual misconduct on campus occurring from top administrative offices down to frat row. A recent $70 million lawsuit against Dartmouth alleging that officials did not act to stop the behavior of three professors accused of sexually assaulting, harassing and discriminating against female students is only one example of this.

Though campus leaders expend much effort educating incoming students about sexual violence, faculty and staff must understand their roles in reporting and preventing sexual assault and harassment.

Clear expectations for better learning

Over the past decade, higher ed institutions have refined sexual harassment policies and training for students. But university employees didn’t necessarily receive the same attention. “Many schools kept policies to their student conduct expectations, rather than recognizing the need for an institutional framework,” says Saundra Schuster, a partner with the NCHERM Group, a higher ed law and consulting practice.

Before forming a comprehensive training model, campus officials should define protocols. While some universities (such as Syracuse in New York) forbid romantic relationships between students and university employees, this rule can be difficult to enforce. “When you prohibit relationships with employees and students, the long list of exceptions begins,” says Schuster. “This extreme isn’t going to solve the problem, and may become worthless policy.” Instead, a consensual relationship policy can better articulate what behaviors are acceptable on campus.

Next, campus leaders must create a reporting process that covers where staff should go when a student voices a concern or incident, and how to uphold confidentiality. Employees should †¨know what resources to share with such a student, even if the victim decides not to officially report an incident. “We want to help employees feel more prepared and informed as to what their obligations are,” says Carli Rohner, campus advocate coordinator with the Oregon Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Task Force.

Sexual harassment training for a safer, †¨more welcoming campus

Some states legally require colleges and universities to conduct sexual harassment training for staff. In Connecticut, for example, all state employees must take part in such training.

Experts advise avoiding one-time, cookie-cutter sessions, such as those available online. A more nuanced approach—such as frequent in-person trainings that allow for open dialogue—creates a safe and welcoming environment for attendees.

“The more interactive and the more scenario-based the training, the better,” says Kate Hildebrandt, the Oregon task force’s campus coordinator. Faculty and staff can share their own experiences and more easily apply what they learn.

A multimedia training works best, with videos and case studies illustrating complicated situations, says Elizabeth Conklin, associate vice president, Title IX coordinator and ADA coordinator with the Office of Institutional Equity at the University of Connecticut. “The vast majority of attendees are not perpetrating these acts. We use bystander intervention in our training similar to what’s being taught in the student realm,” says Conklin. “We teach how to stand up and how to be a force of good on campus.”

Participants role-play to better understand the definition of sexual harassment and intimidation, and to practice appropriate language. “Sometimes, people may have an unintentionally narrow perspective of sexual harassment or assault,” says Hildebrandt. “Role-playing can help illuminate the effects of relationship violence, or an ongoing hostile environment in the classroom or lab.”

Employee orientation typically includes sexual harassment training, but universities should offer continued training for all staff annually or, if possible, †¨per semester.
At UConn, the Office of Institutional Equity developed sessions specifically for managers, and the training team hosts individualized programming for the university’s departments. “It has made a difference in effectiveness, going to the employees rather than sending people to us,” says Conklin.

Trainers should also reframe the sessions as not just required, but as a way to improve the classroom environment, adds Rohner, of the task force in Oregon.

“It is an opportunity for community building,” she says.

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