Understanding why students are hesitant to report sexual assault is the first step to building better, more supportive responses.
College and university administrators are working hard to improve how they handle student sexual assaults by reworking their student handbooks, reconsidering their disciplinary procedures, and retraining their faculty and staff. Unfortunately, the impact of these efforts and improvements can go unnoticed. According to a BJS study, “more than 3 in 4 student victims of rape and sexual assault knew the offender.” These assaults often occur near the home of the victim/friend/relative/acquaintance, which means they can happen right on campus in the dorms, fraternity houses, or other areas. As such administrative safety measures should be present enough for the student population to be aware of and help them to feel safer on campus.
This article will explore some of the barriers to reporting, how some students view existing sexual violence prevention efforts, and ways administrators can bridge those gaps.
Students are Uncertain Whether Reporting Will Actually Help
In dealing with the aftermath of being sexually assaulted on her school’s campus, Hayley Himmelman, a Communication student at Northwestern University, felt that the issue of sexual violence has been getting buried at many institutions. To expose the problem, Himmelman produced a play called “Blue Lights,” based on a collection of interviews conducted with fellow NU students that portrays sexual violence, as well as what a healthy relationship looks like.
According to an online article published by the Daily Northwestern, “The play is centered on the University’s blue light phones placed on and off campus, which serve as quick ways to report crime and emergencies.” But the blue lights represent something else to Himmelman: a façade. “…the administration can point to [the blue lights] and say, ‘[t]hat’s, you know, how we protect our students from harm,’” said Himmelman, who believes that the lights give students a “false sense of security.”
The lights are installed. The system is in place. But to students who continue to experience sexual violence—whether at NU or other campuses—they are not enough. Even with these blue lights, or any of the other campus safety resources at their disposal on College and University campuses, many students choose silence over reporting. The reality for Hayley and for many other survivors is that assault can happen even while on campus. Make sure that students have victim support services and confidential counseling to go to for more information.
Alongside ensuring that students know where to go and what to do, it’s crucial that colleges make the reporting process well-known and foster a respectful, victim-centered, and secure environment on campus.
Here are some actions administrators can take on campus to create a safer and more supportive climate:
Increase the presence of campus security patrols on foot and in vehicles
- Along with patrolling the more isolated areas on campus, it’s also a good idea to have campus security located in visible and high traffic areas, such as main entrances, and parking lots.
- Having security patrol around campus acts both as deterrence for perpetrators, as well as sources who can witness and intervene in a potential assault or an assault in progress.
- Have the campus security office be a well-known location so students can get help when needed.
Use emails and flyers to help reach out to the community and enhance communication between administration and the student body
- Make these materials non-judgmental, easily accessible, detailed, and containing information such as steps to take before or after an assault and resources to reach out to.
Incorporate educational and prevention programs
- “Sexual assault is a learned behavior,” states an article posted by the AAUW. “By fostering a campus culture of gender equity and respect through programming, “Sexual training, and awareness campaigns, faculty and staff can help prevent sexual assault. Faculty can also incorporate the issue of sexual assault into their curriculum whenever possible and whenever relevant to course content. Faculty and staff can also offer student workshops facilitated by trained faculty, staff, and students on campus.”
Students are Unaware of Available Resources on Campus
A campus climate survey conducted by the Association of American Universities (AAU) in September 2015 revealed that “[a]bout a quarter of the students generally believe they are knowledgeable about the resources available related to sexual assault and misconduct.” Over 150,000 students from 27 participating institutions took this survey, but 75% of them aren’t aware of their schools’ resources.
Even the best-developed program will be ineffective if 75% of the students on campus don’t know about it. Here are some things administrators can do on campus to make sure students know about campus resources:
Organize and participate in public awareness initiatives
- Having administrators be present on campus shows students that the school cares about their knowledge and safety, which helps make the campus a more accepting place. Consider which existing campus organizations and resources the school can engage to help set up these initiatives.
- Some educational and public awareness initiatives that spread information and support to students include It’s on Us, White Ribbon Campaign, and Take Back the Night.
All colleges and universities should have a Title IX Coordinator
- As someone who is responsible for overseeing all complaints of sexual misconduct and discrimination, as well as identifying and addressing patterns and problems on campus, this role is very important to aiding in student safety. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) published a post on this matter, stating that “The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released helpful tools to provide Title IX Coordinators with vital resources to help them do their jobs better. Faculty and staff can help by making sure that these materials get into the hands of as many coordinators as possible to help them make sure students have access to educational opportunities.”
- The Title IX Coordinator’s information can be included on class syllabi, posted fliers, newsletters, and definitely should be easily found on the school website. An email address, office number, and phone extension are helpful contact options for students to consider when reaching out for help.
Underreported Sexual Assaults Misrepresent the Scope of the Problem
11.2% of all students have experienced a form of sexual assault while on campus, and not many report the incident afterward. Mistrust of the reporting process contributes to sexual violence being a drastically underreported crime. The AAU’s climate survey revealed that “[a] relatively small percentage (e.g., 28% or less) of even the most serious incidents are reported to an organization or agency (e.g., Title IX office; law enforcement).”
Incidentally, underreporting can lead to a common belief that sexual violence is made out to be a bigger issue than it really is. However, the data shows that reports of sexual assault on college campuses have been on the rise in the past few years. As of February 2016, the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education is investigating 208 cases of civil rights violations involving sexual assault reports at 167 colleges and universities. And as college students become more aware of sexual misconduct and how to recognize it—through training programs, news stories, and so on—the number of reports are likely to continue rising, as long as students feel comfortable about reporting and know about (and trust) their school’s available resources.
Properly addressing reports of sexual violence is crucial to fostering an environment that encourages reporting. The more incidents that go unreported, the less information administrators have about the true scope of the issue.
A survey of about 650 university presidents showed that ‘[a]bout one-third (32 percent) of respondents agree or strongly agree that sexual assault is prevalent at American colleges and universities. But few presidents (6 percent) agree or strongly agree that sexual assault is prevalent at their institution.” With the recognition that sexual assault can happen at any campus, administrators are better able to address and be proactive about tackling the situation on their campus.
How Survivors Can Feel Safer Coming Forward
The Department of Education released resources to help improve campus climate, stating that “Research shows that students learn best when they are in environments in which they feel safe, supported, challenged, and accepted… By improving school climate, schools lay the foundation for improving daily school attendance and high achievement by all students.”
In order to reach that level of safety, students must feel comfortable with and confident in the resources provided by their school. Students should know there is someone to talk to and that their claim will be taken seriously. By reaching out to the student body—through training courses, well-marked signs, an easy to navigate website, posters/flyers, and the suggestions listed throughout this post—administrators can better equip students with the knowledge and confidence they need to report.
Though the overall goal is to reduce incidences of sexual misconduct, administrators must first be aware of the magnitude of the issue. A more aware and responsive administration can encourage students to report sexual violence—which informs how administration can resolve sexual violence on campus—and opens the door for further opportunities to support. Increased student reporting and effective administrative response can feed back on each other, creating a safer, more equitable campus.
Here are some additional options to consider:
- Some college and university campuses have adopted the use of technology as a tool to enhance safety measures, “like video surveillance, swipe entry cards, emergency text message notification, and blue light emergency phone systems.” Consider which safety methods might be a good addition to a college campus.
- Fix every broken or dim light on campus (including parking lots, pathways, halls, and lobbies). Students should be able to see where they are going and who is around them. This can provide benefits like students attending more night classes and reducing other crimes, like theft.
- “Get out of the office, walk the campus, and listen to students, staff, and the community,” states a University Business article on creating a more secure campus, “People will feel safer if you are among them. Listening to them can also alleviate quite a bit of anxiety, which often comes out of the feeling that the school foes not care about them individually.”
Learn how to prepare students for the challenges and responsibilities of college life through online compliance training. For more information, visit CampusClarity’s home page.