Sexual violence is a widespread problem for college communities. Colleges and universities are spending more time, effort and finances on harassment and sexual assault concerns than ever before. Higher education related claims of harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence cost colleges and universities millions of dollars. For smaller colleges in particular, losing a lawsuit can be catastrophic. Sexual violence across college campuses persists across all racial and ethnic groups, sexual orientations, and gender identities.
The manner in which colleges and universities handle allegations of sexual assault has been the subject of increasing attention and controversy as shown in Doe v. Brown University. Typically, when you hear about sexual assault cases, the discussion centers on victims and the rights of the accused. However, campus leaders are growing increasingly concerned about the financial impact on institutions. United Educators reviewed 1,000 incidents of campus sexual assault and found that, in cases with litigation, the claims can cost institutions an average of $350,000.
In 2008, the American College Health Association (ACHA) recognized sexual violence as a “serious campus and public health issue.” The ACHA developed a toolkit, Shifting the Paradigm: Primary Prevention of Sexual Violence, to provide facts, ideas, strategies, conversation starters, and resources to everyone on campus. The emphasis is to encourage prevention activities before sexual violence has occurred as there is a plethora of information, tools and resources currently available for intervention after sexual violence. Strategies to raise awareness of this growing concern are ever increasing with the addition of conferences and forums such as the 2017 NASPA Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Conference: A NASPA Strategies Conference, that was held in January 2017.
Most legislative efforts are mandates requiring campuses to put considerable resources towards responding to reports of sexual violence and adjudicating them. We call on postsecondary institutions to move beyond reactionary, compliance focused mandates to innovative and inclusive initiatives to prevent sexual violence. A study conducted at Indiana University demonstrates that sexual assault is a predictable outcome of a synergistic intersection of both gendered and seemingly gender neutral processes operating at individual, organizational, and interactional levels.
Students, faculty and staff across campuses have also become increasingly involved in prevention efforts. Sustainable prevention of sexual violence requires organizational and cultural change that is supported by senior leadership, including presidents, boards, vice-presidents, and deans. Many institutions have implemented a strategy of violence prevention called Green Dot. The primary mission of Green Dot is the reduction of power-based personal violence. Bystander intervention, which empowers students to take action when they observe behaviors related to sexual violence, can engage the larger campus community in sexual violence prevention.
Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 requires schools to combat sex discrimination in education. The Department of Education explicitly warns institutions that they must investigate any claims of sexual misconduct on campus, regardless of if a criminal investigation has not reached a conclusion. This also allows colleges and universities to act quickly to protect students, ensure a safe campus and also respond to survivors’ needs that go unaddressed by the criminal justice system under Title IX. For many survivors, campus reporting is their only option. They do not want to go through a trial, fear retaliation or face skepticism from the public, or parties involved in the legal process. In order to protect themselves and avoid costly legal implications, institutions need to competently investigate allegations of sexual assault.
All students have the right to learn in environments that are free from sexual violence. Each and every one of us within a campus community have an ethical responsibility to create and maintain safe and equitable learning environments for all students. Sexual violence is a social justice issue that requires a holistic and comprehensive approach. Campuses should provide varied and layered opportunities for education to increase awareness, knowledge, and skills when it comes to sexual violence prevention. Positive and developmentally appropriate messaging should be integrated throughout a comprehensive prevention effort. Effective prevention education reaches students through multiple entry points throughout the student experience.
This post was co-authored by Ms. Naomi Hansen and Dr. David Nguyen. Ms. Hansen is Director of Marketing and Communications at the University of North Dakota School of Graduate Studies and a masters student in the UND Higher Education program.