By Megha Sevalia
After one and a half years of virtual learning, college students nationwide are eagerly awaiting the return to campus life this fall. Along with exciting opportunities to reunite with friends, attend in-person sporting events, and interact with classmates face-to-face, the return to campus also brings back many safety risks for students. With a large portion of the incoming student body new to navigating campus life, it is more important than ever that schools take proactive measures to create a safe campus environment, especially as it relates to sexual violence.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, around 70% of sexual assaults on college campuses occur at the onset of the fall semester, during a period of time called the “red zone” (BJS, 2016). Many of these assaults involve new students who lack knowledge about the campus resources and the support systems that are key strategies for sexual violence prevention. In past years, the “red zone” largely affected freshman students, but in 2021, the “double red zone” is projected to include new freshman students and the sophomore students who spent their first year studying virtually from their homes. The “red zone” also coincides with the myriad of parties, rush events, and other socials that occur at the beginning of the fall semester (Vitchers, 2021). As older students return to campus intending to make up for the lost time during the pandemic, the number of social events that will take place this fall will likely increase.
Universities began considering the implications of the “double red zone” before the Spring 2021 semester when students began trickling back onto campuses. While many Universities already have programs in place to combat the ‘red zone,” the heightened risk this year indicates that universities should reevaluate and reinforce existing programs. There are numerous evidence-based approaches that Universities can take to strengthen their sexual violence prevention plans. Sexual violence interventions should take place at multiple times: before, during, and after sexually violent behavior occurs (Kenny, 2021).
Before sexual violence takes place, interventions should focus on setting community standards for campus and conveying that the school does not accept sexually violent behaviors. These interventions often include bystander training programs, such as the Green Dot or Bringing in the Bystander program, or skills training around healthy sexuality or empowerment based resistance programs, such as the Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act (EAAA) program (APA). These approaches should begin before students move onto campus and should continue regularly throughout the year. University messaging should reinforce the lack of tolerance towards sexual violence and that consequences will be enforced. These same programs teach skills that apply during sexually violent behavior (or immediately before): for example, widespread bystander intervention training during the “before” stage can prepare students and faculty on how to recognize and address situations where there is a risk of sexual violence using the 4D’s (click here to learn more about the 4Ds and how to improve your bystander intervention skills!)
After sexually violent behavior, providing trauma-informed, survivor-centered support for survivors is important. Incident response should be the choice of the survivor and all messaging should validate that the survivor is not at fault.
Preventing sexual violence is a comprehensive process that requires more than educational programs. The Centers for Disease Control established a technical package with five categories of strategies to reduce sexual violence, titled Stop SV:
S: Promote Social Norms that Protect Against Violence
T: Teach Skills to Prevent Sexual Violence
O: Provide Opportunities to Empower and Support Girls and Women
P: Create Protective Environments
SV: Support Victims/ Survivors to Lessen Harms
The full package comprises an extensive list of strategies to combat sexual violence and can be accessed here (CDC). Campuses have also created supplementary initiatives that can reduce risk including 24-hour cafeteria programs, which provide students with a safe and supervised location to socialize, and delayed “rush” periods for Greek organizations, which give students time to familiarize themselves with campus resources and form social networks (Bauer-Wolf, 2019). These programs create environmental changes to protect students and can vary based on the specific campus’s needs.
There are many evidence-based strategies available for universities to implement into their sexual violence prevention plans. By collecting data through climate surveys and evaluating the strategies that are being used, universities can determine targeted approaches to combat sexual violence on campus. Most importantly, universities should be careful to avoid oversimplified approaches as frontline responses. Relying on a quick session during orientation, hosting an awareness event, or solely promoting risk reduction strategies does not comprise a comprehensive prevention plan. The return to in-person learning should be an exciting time for students, and campuses should take the responsibility now to create safe, protective environments.
Bureau of Justice Statistics Research and Development Series. (2016). Campus Climate Survey Validation Study Final Technical Report. RTI International. https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/ccsvsftr.pdf
Bauer-Wolf, J. (2019, September 12). Experts say new methods needed to combat the Red Zone on campuses. Insidehighered.com. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/09/12/experts-say-new-methods-needed-combat-red-zone-campuses
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Sexual Violence on Campus: Strategies for Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/campussvprevention.pdf
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). STOP SV: A Technical Package to Prevent Sexual Violence. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/sv-prevention-technical-package.pdf
Kenny, Q. (2021, March 4) The red zone of sexual assault, and why it’s different in 2021. Johns Hopkins University. https://wellness.jhu.edu/the-red-zone-of-sexual-assault-and-why-its-different-in-2021/
Vitchers, T. (2021, April 20). Confronting Campus Sexual Assault Prevention And Fall School Reopenings Head On. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/civicnation/2021/04/20/confronting-campus-sexual-assault-prevention-and-fall-school-reopenings-head-on/?sh=4ac99bb08a7b
Winerman, L. (2018). Making campuses safer. Https://Www.apa.org. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2018/10/campuses-safer