Print Issue: November 2014
ONE OUT OF FIVE WOMEN is sexually assaulted while in college. Most often, it happens during her first two years there, and by someone she knows. And the majority of these assaults go unreported, according to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.
“Sexual violence is more than just a crime against individuals. It threatens our families, it threatens our communities. Ultimately, it threatens the entire country,” President Barack Obama said earlier this year when he announced the creation of the task force. Spurred by the alarming frequency of sexual assault, the Obama administration and the Senate have both proposed broad initiatives aimed at preventing sexual assault.
The administration’s proposal, says expert Brian Van Brunt, author of Ending Campus Violence: New Approaches to Prevention, is indicative of the way sexual assault prevention and college campus security have evolved in recent years. Traditionally prevention efforts focused on educating potential victims, by instructing them to watch their alcohol intake, learn self-defense, avoid being unaccompanied in the dark, and even be mindful of what they wear, Van Brunt says.
Some security and university officials are still stuck in this mindset, said Vice President Joe Biden, who joined Obama at the task force event. “We continue to ask questions like, ‘Well, what were you wearing? What did you say? What did you do?’” Biden said. “The real question is, what made him think that he had a right to do what he did?”
But now, contemporary sexual assault prevention practices focus on building safe and supportive campus communities on several levels. Efforts are focused on educating as many members of the community as possible to get involved: not just the partygoer, but the host of the party; not just the security guard, but bystanders, Van Brunt says.
To do this successfully, security programs have been moving away from the “one soldier” approach, says Abigail Boyer, assistant executive director of programs at the Clery Center for Security On Campus. Under this approach, assault prevention is a team effort at all levels and includes peers and higher-ups.
“Campus safety can’t just fall on one safety staffer and one department. There has to be buy-in from the administration and leadership,” Boyer says.
The White House initiative attempts to address the problem through several channels. Since sexual assault is still chronically underreported, officials are trying to get a clearer picture of the problem through the use of surveys. Thus, the task force is now providing colleges with a toolkit to develop and conduct a climate survey, and is asking all schools to voluntarily conduct such a survey in 2015. Based on the results, officials plan to refine the survey methodology and will consider making it mandatory in 2016.
“A mandate for schools to periodically conduct a climate survey will change the national dynamic; with a better picture of what’s really happening on campus, schools will be able to more effectively tackle the problem,” reads the initiative’s mission statement.
In addition, the initiative is attempting to spread awareness of preventive programs aimed at teenagers before they reach college. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reviewed primary prevention programs for reducing sexual violence and found that only three have had any positive effect on the problem. One is “Safe Dates,” a universal dating-violence-prevention program for middle and high school students that includes a 10-session curriculum addressing attitudes, social norms, and healthy relationship skills, along with a 45-minute student play about dating violence.
The second is another school-based program, “Shifting Boundaries,” aimed at middle school students. It contains two parts: six classroom-based sessions and a building-wide intervention that addresses safety concerns in schools. According to the CDC, rigorous independent evaluations of both programs have found that, four years after completing the program, students in the intervention group were significantly less likely to be victims or perpetrators of self-reported sexual violence compared with students in a control group.
The third is a grant program created by the U.S. Violence Against Women Act of 1994. Various prevention initiatives, including awareness programs, research, and victims services, were funded by the grant program. Together, these programs were associated with only a 0.066 percent annual reduction in rapes reported to the police, according to the CDC.
Another component of the White House initiative is a new website, NotAlone: Together Against Sexual Assault (Not.gov), that offers a range of resources for both students and administrators. It includes informational sections along with legal guidance, advice on drafting sexual assault policies, material on bystander-focused prevention programs, and explanations of federal regulations, like the Clery Act.
Like the White House proposal, the Senate proposal is a multifaceted one, but it has a particular emphasis on holding universities accountable for maintaining a safe and secure environment, as well as making the extent of the problem more transparent.
To strengthen accountability, the proposed Campus Accountability and Safety Act would stiffen penalties against colleges that fail to curb sexual assault. The bill increases the existing sanctions against universities that fail to report sexual assault crimes as required by federal law, from $35,000 to $150,000. In addition, colleges would be fined up to 1 percent of their operating budgets if they fail to investigate reports of sexual assault.
To improve transparency, the legislation would require colleges to conduct an annual anonymous survey asking students about their experiences with sexual assault on campus. Colleges would be required to publish the results online, “so that parents and high school students can make an informed choice when comparing universities,” according to a summary of the bill.
In addition, colleges would be required to designate advisors to serve as confidential resources for victims of assaults. They would provide assistance, at the direction of the survivor, in reporting the crime to campus or law enforcement officers and coordinating support services. The legislation would also increase training for those responsible for investigating assaults and participating in disciplinary proceedings.
Finally, in bitterly polarized Washington, the sexual assault issue has brought together lawmakers from both parties to sponsor bipartisan legislation. “There may be hope for us yet,’’ Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said at a news conference introducing the bill.