Lindsey Schindler, Program Intern
Campus sexual violence is incredibly pervasive as more than 1 in 8 college students experience sexual assault (AAU, 2020). Federal mandates under the Clery Act require colleges and universities that receive federal funding to provide sexual violence prevention education and raise awareness about the prevalence of this violence. Specifically, under Title XX U.S. Code §1092, each institute of higher education must establish a policy regarding programs to prevent domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking, as well as the procedures that will be taken if any of these instances occur. In order to efficiently do so, programs should be established that increase awareness, utilize primary prevention education, and teach bystander intervention skills.
In 2013, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, also called the Campus SaVE Act, amended the Clery Act to require higher education institutions to distribute prevention and educational awareness to all students and affiliated employees (KnowYourIX). If evidence can be compiled that an institution fails to report crime statistics and established policy statements, the Federal Student Aid office of the Department of Education may distribute a fine of over fifty-nine thousand dollars for every violation (Clery Center). Although these federal requirements include a requirement for ongoing prevention and awareness, a significant number of colleges merely satisfy the mandate by requiring students and faculty to complete a single training, usually during the beginning of the fall semester in August or September.
Many mandated trainings are presented in a digital context containing several different modules with information about sexual assault. This type of format allows for convenience of the viewer, but often this convenience leads to inattention and lack of concern for the material being presented. Users can mute any auditory element, as well as being able to resume the training in one setting while completing tasks in an entirely different one. With close to two years of virtual learning under our belts, it is even more common for students to be engaging in other tasks while attending a Zoom meeting or participating in an online class. As a result, the general lack of attentiveness to information presented in a virtual format is more relevant now than ever and will continue to have detrimental effects on sexual assault awareness and related prevention strategies within the college environment.
Research on the effectiveness of college sexual violence training is limited and available studies report mixed results on the impact of these trainings, both positive and negative. In one survey conducted with staff and other community members of a metropolitan university receiving a sexual harassment education program, researchers found a lesser likelihood of men to accurately perceive sexual harassment, to report these instances of harassment, and an increased likelihood to blame the victim (Bingham & Scherer, 2001).
Similarly, a research study conducted by Contreras and Sayuri Dominguez supports mixed attitudes among many college students who completed a misconduct training, reporting that the training was teaching ‘basic common-sense facts’ that are reinforced through the media (Contrerars & Sayuri Dominguez, 2018). Though on the other hand, a study that investigated the impact of online sexual assault training yielded results that supported a significant increase in intention to intervene and self-report, as well as possessing empathy and support for victims (Zapp et al., 2018). Mixed results on effectiveness reveal a need to further evaluate and improve campus programs to ensure that they include key elements of successful prevention programming:
1. Combination of Multimedia and Multi-Platform Engagements
To accurately recognize when sexual harassment and sexual assault is taking place to then intervene, it is crucial that the skills necessary to do so are practiced and positively reinforced within these training programs. The commonly held online trainings that many universities currently provide does not contain this reinforcement that is necessary for effective learning. As a result, the best preventive course of action is designing and implementing training that have both online and in person participation opportunities and contain more interactive components. Given the heightened digital era we live in, online training is more prevalent now than ever. However, opportunities to engage with the presented material in person, in groups, and through a variety of formats can encourage a deeper retention of information which can then be translated into preventive action, rather than merely clicking through a computer screen.
2. Appropriately Timed and Recurring Programming
Another key element to improve programs is ensuring that programming is appropriately timed such that the program and its elements are implemented at a time that is predicted to be the most impactful in a participant’s life, based on the developmental trajectory of the individual. On college campuses, sexual violence trainings are typically introduced during the first couple of weeks of the fall semester. The beginning of the semester is also known as the ‘red zone’, the time in the school year when the highest rates of sexual violence occur. First-year and new students are particularly vulnerable because they are unfamiliar with the campus and building new social networks. In addition, new found independence for younger students combined with large party and drinking culture can increase the risk for victimization and perpetration (Bauer-Wolf, 2019).
Though this is an effective time to introduce these programs, the comprehensiveness of the information presented would be strengthened if the program was implemented more than one time during the academic school year. For example, programming could be built on and reintroduced when students return to campus after winter break and during Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April. Many college campuses often engage in sexual violence awareness efforts during the month of April, such as hosting public discussions and forums, as well as participating in the infamous “Slut Walk” and “Denim Day.” Reintroducing sexual violence programs during this time of heightened awareness of the issue reinforces the importance of sexual violence prevention by refreshing the information and reengaging the campus community in conversations.
3. Socio-culturally Relevant to Your Community
Another important element for prevention programs is ensuring they are socio-culturally relevant to your community. Programs should take into consideration the social and cultural context of the audience to ensure the messaging and content is relevant to the community. It is important to maintain an intersectional lens of understanding of the relationship between identities such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and language when considering the factors that surround sexual violence. By tailoring programs to the needs and experiences that embody the student population, it is more likely the content and intended communication of these programs will reach a larger and more diverse audience, which will then hopefully translate into preventive action.
4. Incorporating Bystander Intervention Skill Development
A particularly important tool for effective prevention education is the use of bystander intervention. Research on violence against women suggests that programs that merely raise awareness of sexual violence without learning opportunities for bystander intervention are ineffective at preventing future violence (Anderson & Whitson, 2005). Psychologist Dorothy Edwards, PhD, founded the Green Dot Bystander Intervention program, a multifaceted training built on the premise that everyone has an equal part and individual responsibility to contribute to the collective effort of creating and maintaining a safe campus. The information presented allows participants to gain better recognition of unsafe situations and times to intervene, as well as understanding the social barriers that may prevent intervention or reporting, and methods to overcome those barriers. Evaluation of numerous campuses implementing this approach found reductions in violent victimization rates including instances of unwanted sexual victimization, sexual harassment, stalking, and psychological dating violence (Alteristic.org).
Although sexual violence is an extremely pervasive issue on many college and university campuses, these trends do not need to remain consistent. A large component of combatting sexual violence on campuses is to instill a community culture that encourages the support of survivors of sexual violence while simultaneously dispelling myths surrounding the nature of sexual violence. This positive shift in perception may be influenced by the implementation of sexual violence prevention programs that are identified as having multiple interactive components, including those that are appropriately timed and socio-culturally relevant to the population it is intended to inform. The effort of recognizing the prevalence and existence of sexual violence on campus coupled with the assumption of responsibility and comprehensive ways to prevent such are two components of an effective bystander-approach that will translate into a safer and healthier campus community.
Federal mandates for prevention education should provide stronger guidelines and funding for curricula and programming to ensure colleges and universities are meeting the requirements and utilizing best practices for comprehensive, evidence-based, and effective prevention work. Through this additional guidance, institutions of higher education can be supported in building safe communities for their students in efforts to reduce sexual violence on campus. To learn more about effective principles of prevention programming, check out ‘What Works In Prevention: Principles of Effective Prevention Programs’ and MCASA’s Prevention Fundamentals.
20 U.S. Code § 1092 - Institutional and financial assistance information for students. Retrieved from: https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/20/1092
Alteristic. (2017, September 6). Green Dot for College. Alteristic. Retrieved from: https://alteristic.org/services/green-dot/green-dot-colleges/
Anderson, L. A., & Whiston, S. C. (2005). Sexual assault education programs: A meta-analytic examination of their effectiveness. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 29(4), 374–388. Retrieved from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/j.1471-6402.2005.00237.x
Bauer-Wolf, J. (2019, September 12). Experts say new methods needed to combat the red zone on campuses. Experts say new methods needed to combat the Red Zone on campuses. Retrieved from: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/09/12/experts-say-new-methods-needed-combat-red-zone-campuses
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Report on the 2019 AAU Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct. (January 17 2020). Association of American Universities. Retrieved from: https://www.aau.edu/key-issues/campus-climate-and-safety/aau-campus-climate-survey-2019
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Zapp, D., Buelow, R., Soutiea, L., Berkowitz, A., & DeJong, W. (2018). Exploring the potential campus-level impact of online Universal Sexual Assault Prevention Education. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 36(5-6). Retrieved from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0886260518762449