Most schools concentrate their substance-abuse and sexual-violence prevention efforts during the first six weeks of the academic year, a period called the “red zone.” First-year women are believed to be at the highest risk for sexual assault during these first six weeks because they are unfamiliar with college social life and thus vulnerable to sexual predators.
Though research does show that first-year women are at greater risk for sexual assault than other undergraduates, no studies (that we’re aware of) have shown that the first six weeks of school are the highest-risk period for them.
Researchers, however, have found evidence for other “red zones.” These red zones, researchers suggest, are particular to schools and are the result of local factors, such as rush periods, big games, or other important social events.
In a 2008 study, William Flack and his colleagues found that second-year women at one college were at a higher risk for sexual assault between the end of the first month of school and fall break. Flack tentatively attributed this spike in risk to the fact that many second-year women were pledging local sororities before fall break. The high number of parties and heavier drinking during pledge week, Flack suggested, put the young women at greater risk for sexual assault.
Flack concluded: “Risk for unwanted sex associated with the academic calendar year may have more to do with the available range of types of social events in which students engage…the contexts within which those events take place, and the sometimes intense pressures on students to conform to campus social mores, than with students’ inexperience of college social life per se.”
Other research, meanwhile, has found that the risk of sexual victimization is evenly spread out across the school year (Fisher et al., 94-95).
Taken together, this research suggests that schools should consider spacing their prevention effects across the entire first year instead of frontloading prevention efforts in the first six weeks of school.
To determine the timing of the programming, administrators might identify major campus events that put students at greater risk for sexual violence or substance abuse and then schedule programming around those events.
Schools could also develop follow-up programming and re-orientations for students in their second, third, and fourth years. These follow ups could present students with new information that is more relevant to their experience — such as upcoming rush or pledge weeks — thus allowing students to continue a discussion that often seems to end after first-year orientation. After all, though women may be at a relatively lower risk of sexual assault later in their college careers, programming should be addressed to potential bystanders and perpetrators as well.
Indeed, spreading programming out isn’t just consistent with research about red zones, it’s also good pedagogy. Spacing any kind of practice across time (rather than massing it in one long event) promotes better long-term retention of material.
Sexual violence is not just a problem in the first six weeks of school and it’s not just a first year problem. All students are responsible for preventing sexual violence.
Fisher, B.S., Cullen, F.T., Turner, M.G. (1999) “Extent and Nature of the Sexual Victimization of College Women: A National-Level Analysis.” Washington, DC: Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.
Flack, W.F., Jr., Caron, M.L., Leinen, S.J., et al. (2008) “‘The Red Zone’: Temporal Risk for Unwanted Sex Among College Students,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 23, 1177-1196.
Kimble, M., Neacsiu, A.D., Flack, W.F., Jr. and Horner, J. “Risk of Unwanted Sex for College Women: Evidence for a Red Zone.” Journal of American College Health, 57, 331-337.
Thalheimer, Will. (2006) Spacing Learning Events Over Time: What the Research Says. Work-Learning Research, Inc. Accessed 18th November 2013 <http://www.work-learning.com/catalog.html>