Title IX, the Clery Act, the Violence Against Women Act, the Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights, and the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act all exist to help eradicate campus sexual assault and protect the rights of victims. Yet even with this extensive arsenal of legislative defense, sexual assault remains a pervasive problem on college campuses nationwide — an issue exacerbated by a lack of transparency by both institutions and victims alike.
In a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) study examining the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, 37 percent of female undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 22 reported experiencing some form of sexual assault since entering college. Of all women surveyed in this age group, 19.8 percent reported experiencing sexual assault, 6 percent rape, and 13.1 percent sexual battery during the 2014-2015 academic year — the time frame in which the study was conducted. Furthermore, these victims reported incidents of rape only 14.6 percent of the time and sexual battery just 5.3 percent of the time.
For Anne Hedgepeth, the senior government relations manager with the American Association of University Women (AAUW), this lack of reporting is indicative of a problem at the institutional level. Among other efforts, AAUW works to address and prevent sexual assault on college campuses nationwide.
“When we look at the statistics that schools are [required to] send to the U.S. Department of Education … on the number of reported incidents of rape, domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking, zeros abound,” she says. “And that is very concerning to us.”
Hedgepeth, like others in the fight to end sexual assault on college campuses, believes the incidence rate is much higher than what the data reveal. However, victims are often reluctant to come forward for a number of reasons.
For many, the decision to not report an incident is based on concerns and distrust regarding how they will be judged and treated. In the BJS study, the answer most given by victims of rape and sexual battery for not reporting was that “others might think [they] were partly at fault.”
Further impeding prevention efforts is a disregard for victims’ rights by some institutions. Just last month, Baylor University was accused of covering up more than 50 incidents of sexual assault supposedly perpetrated by members of the football team; several women have sued the university for its handling of their cases, according to The New York Times. This is a school that, between 2008 and 2011, reported no incidents of sexual misconduct by students.
To the AAUW, this situation demonstrates the urgent need to increase prevention efforts and ensure proper support for victims.
“When a school like Baylor has said there are no instances of sexual assault [by students], we are skeptical [because] it doesn’t square with the information we have about student experiences on college campuses,” Hedgepeth says. “For us, what that says is that there may be some problems where students or survivors aren’t able or don’t want to come forward and report.”
Education and Intervention
While institutions of higher education — those that participate in federal financial aid programs — are required by the SaVE Act to provide both students and employees education around sexual assault prevention, some colleges are only providing a one-time training as opposed to multiple sessions. Yet studies have shown that shorter trainings are less effective than longer ones for altering attitudes about rape and rape-related behavior.
But at institutions such as the University of California and Dartmouth University, a comprehensive, integrated approach drives all sexual assault prevention efforts.
“If we look at the whole student — the academic, the residential, and the social — we can’t just take one piece of that and say, ‘We’re going to focus on incorporating sexual assault prevention into the academic realm.’ Certainly that is one facet, but it’s not going to reach all students,” says Heather Lindkvist, Tile IX coordinator and Clery Act compliance officer at Dartmouth University, located in Hanover, N.H. “Looking at ways that we can affect student behavior through a variety of mechanisms is essential for any institution to change behavior and prevent sexual misconduct.”
In early 2015, the university announced a blueprint for enacting this kind of institutional transformation, requiring education around sexual assault prevention all four years of the undergraduate college experience. The Sexual Violence Prevention and Education Program seeks to address all facets of sexual assault prevention — from important definitions and identifying risky behavior to intervention and reporting methods.
The first-year experience includes three components: an online program that walks students through issues related to sexual misconduct, including dating and domestic violence, sexual harassment and assault, and stalking; bystander intervention training; and education about the risks posed by alcohol and drugs. Programming for sophomore through senior years is still being developed, but Lindkvist says Dartmouth is examining ways to integrate students’ academic experience with co-curricular and other activities, as well as looking for “prime opportunities to [speak] with students about these issues.”
“In the first year, we talk about concerns that might be raised while in college,” Lindkvist says. “In their senior year, as students start to apply to professional or graduate schools or [jobs], we’ll talk about professionalism and sexual harassment and discrimination policies in the workplace to [help them] intervene when harmful or risky behaviors occur.”
Dartmouth’s prevention program, Lindkvist says, will provide students with a “menu of options,” with different experiences or activities to fulfill all program requirements. One such option is the Dartmouth Bystander Initiative (DBI).
The goal of DBI is to empower the campus community to intervene to defuse threatening situations. Participation is voluntary, but all students rushing to join a fraternity or sorority must complete the training. DBI facilitators also offer workshops tailored to specific campus groups such as student-athletes.
The university also looks for other key moments to discuss issues around sexual assault with diverse groups of students. For instance, before studying abroad, students are required to participate in a program that highlights cultural norms around sexuality and issues they may encounter in other countries. Additionally, programs exist for international students to help them adjust to American cultural norms and for members of the LGBTQ community to discuss their concerns.
“Sexual [assault] can affect anyone regardless of sex, gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status,” Lindkvist says. “This is an opportunity for Dartmouth to be creative in the way it is providing education around sexual misconduct, bystander intervention, healthy relationships, and communication that is necessary both in and outside of the classroom and on and off campus.”
At the University of California (UC), sexual violence prevention and intervention education is a mandatory part of the 10-campus system’s effort to end sexual assault. This education includes three components: in-person training at orientation, online training, and outreach by the administration. The online component, which all freshmen must complete within the first six weeks of the fall semester, covers definitions of forms of sexual violence, social norms that can normalize this behavior, bystander intervention, resources, rights, and reporting options, among other topics.
In addition, each campus offers supplementary education tailored to its specific community, says Kathleen Salvaty, JD, the new system-wide Title IX coordinator at UC. Salvaty, who previously served as Title IX coordinator for the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), reports directly to UC President Janet Napolitano in her new role to prevent sexual assault.
Salvaty says the focus when students first come to campus is on defining consent, sharing resources, and informing them of their rights. “I don’t think when I was in college we understood that we had the right to affirmatively consent,” she says, “so I think educating everyone about that is extremely important.”
At UCLA and other UC campuses, sexual assault prevention also plays a large role in Greek life. Through the Violence Intervention Program (VIP), each fraternity and sorority designates a VIP ambassador who must go through 30 hours of additional education around prevention. These individuals, Salvaty says, are then charged with taking what they’ve learned and sharing it with others in their chapter
Bystander intervention is also addressed in depth at UCLA, where freshmen watch a film and discuss techniques. Students learn methods for diffusing situations, including directly intervening, distracting, or delegating — meaning calling the police or someone else in charge.
“There’s no set way, there’s no script for how you might intervene, but [we emphasize] doing it in a way that feels comfortable,” Salvaty says.
Another key aspect of prevention is ensuring safe, clear, and confidential avenues for reporting incidents. A result of seven recommendations from a presidential task force, a CARE: Advocate Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Violence and Sexual Misconduct is now a staple of every campus in the UC System. Each office’s full-time trained staff, called CARE advocates, provide confidential emotional support and assistance to student survivors of sexual assault or violence, as well as help them access campus resources like counseling or medical care.
“If a student goes to a CARE advocate, they’re not putting the university or my office on notice. It’s a confidential space where they can process what they’ve experienced and learn what their options are, what it would look like if they wanted to report to the university or to the police,” Salvaty says. “I think having those [transparent] systems in place is really helpful. … If we are telling everyone to report to the university and that the university will appropriately respond, we have to make sure we’re doing that.”
At Dartmouth, training for faculty and staff is in place to improve the university’s response to reports of sexual assault. Aptly titled “Strengthening Our Response to Sexual Misconduct,” the workshop emphasizes the role these individuals play in addressing and preventing incidents. “Participants learn and practice culturally responsive, trauma-informed strategies on how to support those who have been affected by sexual misconduct and other forms of violence or harm,” according to the university’s website.
“It integrates what employees need to know about the basics of Title IX, what their obligations are to disclose information to the Title IX coordinator, and how they can respond effectively,” Lindkvist says, adding that anonymous reporting methods also exist on Dartmouth’s campus.
In the UC System, all faculty, staff, and administrators are required to participate in sexual assault prevention training on an annual basis. This programming covers important definitions, laws, bystander intervention, students’ rights, and employees’ obligation to report incidents they become aware of.
“We are talking about a culture change in many ways … so that everyone understands the impact sexual harassment and violence have on a student’s or employee’s ability to learn or work,” says Salvaty. “Everybody takes some responsibility for creating and maintaining a safe campus and workplace.”
Involving students in prevention efforts and engaging them in this cultural transformation is also critical, she says. At UCLA, one student organization is working hard to create an inclusive campus for all by educating the university community. Bruin Consent Coalition (BCC) Co-directors Sophia Arim and Yong-Yi Chiang say the organization seeks to “create a safe space for survivors and influence actual campus change.”
They agree with Salvaty that such a transformation requires the work of all campus constituents, led by the administration; however, they don’t underestimate the impact of student-led efforts.
“To [alter] people’s mindsets and the way they think about sexual violence is to change culture from the ground up, and working peer to peer is the best way to reach our audience,” Arim and Chiang say. “Continuing conversations is one way we can interact with fellow students to best change culture from the bottom up. It is crucial to interact with students on this peer-to-peer level because it makes things relatable.”
Advocacy and Improvement
Back at the AAUW, Hedgepeth and her colleagues focus their efforts on ensuring equity for women and girls in higher education via advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research. Serving as both an advocate and a watchdog in regard to sexual assault, the organization engages with colleges and universities, shares best practices and resources, advocates for policies and legislation, and leads important discussions.
Perhaps AAUW’s most comprehensive resource, the Ending Sexual Assault Tool Kit provides the organization’s 800 member institutions and 170,000 individual members with information to guide them in their prevention efforts.
“The tool kit helps support students and members of higher education communities in understanding what campus sexual assault is, what some of the federal laws are that govern what schools do, and some steps they can take to improve what’s happening on their [campuses],” Hedgepeth says.
In addition, AAUW recommends that campuses conduct climate surveys to assess their efforts and develop better reporting mechanisms.
“It is critical in a campus climate survey that you find out why students may not be reporting or coming forward; that information can be incredibly valuable to administrators. You may find out that you don’t have a good reporting system, that there need to be more spaces on campus for students and survivors to come forward,” Hedgepeth says. “Climate studies can help fill in gaps and lead to a better response in the short term and prevention in the long term.”
“There can be a chilling effect if students and survivors feel their school won’t do anything when sexual violence occurs,” she adds.
In 2015, Dartmouth, in collaboration with the Association of American Universities, conducted the Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct to gain a better understanding of students’ concerns and experiences with sexual assault, as well as their perceptions of institutional policies. Findings from the survey have informed much of the university’s current work around prevention, including improving processes for reporting, and Lindkvist says Dartmouth is planning a second survey. “I want to see how what we have implemented in the last several years has evolved and affected the responses that we’re seeing from students,” she says.
As contrarian as it may seem, Lindkvist hopes to see an increase in the number of sexual assault cases reported. “It indicates that the college is doing a better job of supporting reporting persons and those who have been affected by sexual misconduct, providing them avenues to come forward and disclose,” she says. “It says we are doing what we need to be doing.”
According to Hedgepeth, more and more institutions are acknowledging the critical nature of this work, moving beyond only what’s required by law.
“Activists and students are really committed to keeping this work going,” she says. “And what we’re hearing from colleges and universities is that they are committed to doing this work, too. They’re putting in place prevention programs not only because they have to, but because it is also the right thing to do.”●
Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.