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Preventing and ending relationship violence: A critical campus imperative

Public Policy Division
January 5, 2015 Thomas Grace RPI

Although dialogue and efforts to prevent and end campus sexual assault have been a longstanding priority for many in the higher education community, the national conversation surrounding this issue has recently risen to a crescendo.  Many who have attended a professional student affairs conference or meeting in the past year have found the topic of compliance with the revised Violence Against Women Act to have arisen immediately and to have become a focal point of discussion.   Numerous articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times have reported the latest legislative developments in Washington as well as the personal accounts and frustrations of victims of campus sexual assault and/or students who have been accused of such behavior.   And administrators are solicited on a daily basis by training companies and consultants offering on-site training, invitations to participate in webinars, on-line educational modules, and other resources to prepare them to deal with sexual assault on their campus.   With a renewed commitment to create and maintain safe and inclusive environments, the higher education community has devoted its collective and nationwide attention, time, and resources to revise campus policies, to develop new response protocols and disciplinary procedures, to train administrators, and to educate students about sexual assault prevention.  

While any effort to enhance our institutional responses to sexual assault on campus is laudable, unfortunately, what seems to have been somewhat overlooked not only by the media but also by well-meaning administrators are the issues of dating and domestic violence. Although relationship violence is also a component of the revised Violence Against Women Act and the related public policy initiatives, for some reason, it seems not to have received the same level of attention as sexual assault on the college campus. For example, during the fall 2014 semester, an incident that occurred between former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and his wife in a hotel elevator in Atlantic City, New Jersey, dominated the nightly news and brought the issue of relationship violence to the national forefront.  As a result, media scrutiny was appropriately brought to the issue of relationship violence among professional athletes and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was admonished for what was perceived as his ineffectual response. During that same time period, however, four college women were murdered by current or former relationship partners (University of Chicago, San Francisco State University, Cornell University, University of South Carolina).  The media coverage of those incidents was almost non-existent. While our attention is understandably devoted to combatting campus sexual assault and debating consent, let us not forget to afford equivalent attention to the problem of dating violence on our campuses. 

This omission is lamented in a recent article appearing in Inside Higher Education.  In that article, Lisa Maatz, Vice President of Government Relations at the American Association of University Women states, “It’s all on a continuum…when we’re talking about sexual assault, we’re basically talking about violence against women. And attempting to prevent that is a holistic approach that starts with sexual harassment and goes through sexual assault and even murder. When we talk about these things, we have to talk about them on this continuum."

To what extent is dating violence an issue on campus?  As the White House Task Force appointed to make recommendations on statutory language soon realized, the numbers can be elusive since defining what constitutes “dating violence” or even what is a “dating relationship” in an era when the “hooking up” phenomenon tends to blur the lines.  However, recent data provide important context to the importance of considering dating violence in efforts to create and sustain safe campus environments and affirm our educational mission as student affairs practitioners.

  • According to the Red Flag Campaign to address public awareness of the issues of dating and domestic violence among college students, 21% of college dating relationships involve some form of physical abuse.  
  • A 2011 poll of over 500 college students that was supported by the Liz Claiborne Company offers an even more startling statistic: 43% of the college women who responded to the “Love Is Not Abuse” program survey reported they had experienced some form of abusive dating behavior.  
  • Of the over 60,000 college students who responded to the 2014 American College Health Survey, 3% of men and 7% of women reported having been a victim of stalking, 2% of men and 11% of women responded that they had been subjected to psychological abuse in a dating context, and 2% of men and 2% of women reported suffering physical abuse by a partner.  
  • The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports, based on a 2007 survey, that between 21% and 33% of college students report having experienced dating violence in the past year.

The discrepancy in the numbers generated by the various research projects certainly suggests that more robust research is needed to discern the degree to which college students are involved in psychologically and physically abusive relationships.  Regardless of the numbers, however, the fact remains that institutions have as much of an obligation – both regulatory and moral - to address these issues as those of rape or other penetrative forms of sexual assault.  Accordingly, colleges cannot limit their focus in policy and resource provisions to rape and/or sexual assault.   Colleges and universities need to seek to better understand and address the causes of dating violence on their campuses and to institute prevention programs to modify the underlying attitudes and beliefs that permit, and often facilitate, such acts.  It must be communicated – and demonstrated - to our students, administrators, and faculty members that any form of relationship violence is antithetical to the values of the higher education community.  There are a few basic steps that can be taken to address relationship violence on campus:

Education: First and foremost, institutions must educate their students – as well as administrators and faculty - to overcome any assumptions that dating and domestic violence doesn’t occur on college campuses. It does and, unfortunately, will continue to do so unless it is vigorously addressed.   Students should be taught to recognize the signs of abusive dating relationships, how to break the Cycle of Violence in relationships, and how to seek help.  Three helpful resources for information on college dating violence are:

  • The Red Flag Campaign: a public awareness campaign designed to address dating violence and promote the prevention of dating violence on college campuses.  
  • Love Is Respect: a website devoted to education on the issue of dating violence among adolescents and a partner of The National Domestic Violence Hotline, and the Mary Kay Corporation. 
  • Safe Horizon:  Located in New York City, Safe Horizon is the largest services agency in the United States.  It assists victims of crime and abuse through 57 program locations, including shelter, in-person counseling, legal services, and more.   

Training: Campus Responsible Employees must be trained to respond to reports of relationship violence and to address such reports with the same level of vigor and follow-through as they may devote to sexual assault or other issues.  Students, administrators, and faculty also can be trained in the strategies and skills of bystander intervention by learning how to intervene effectively when they observe someone involved in what appears to be a psychologically or physically abusive relationship. 

Research:  In their confidential climate surveys that are being conducted to assess sexual assault on their respective campus, institutions must not forget to include questions concerning their students’ personal experiences and observations to assess the prevalence of dating and domestic violence at their institution. 

Administrative Systems:  Campus healthcare professionals (i.e. physicians, counselors, educators) should be encouraged to ask the appropriate questions whenever they identify a student who appears to have been the victim of relationship violence.  Campus student conduct policies and procedures should be reviewed to assure they are attentive to matters of relationship violence.  Administrators, especially student conduct adjudicators, must be prepared to equally attend to the concerns of reporters and respondents when allegations of relationship violence are raised.

Advocacy:  Professional organizations, and College and University administrators acting on an individual basis, are urged to incorporate the issue of relationship violence, as well as other forms of campus violence, in their national agendas.   For example, NASPA has taken a significant step toward this goal in two ways;  The “Enough is Enough Campaign” which focuses on bullying and general acts of aggression on campus, and through the 2015 NASPA Violence Prevention Conference, being held from January 11 – January 13, 2015, at the  Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland.  The Violence Prevention Conference focuses on equipping student affairs practitioners with the knowledge and tools to effectively address violence on campus through a variety of integrative approaches. 

By all means, we must continue our efforts to combat sexual assault on the college campus. But while doing so, let us not overlook dating and other forms of relationship violence that are occurring among our students. We must empower victims, teach those who are potential abusers to recognize any such propensity and to refrain from doing so, support survivors, and vigorously address incidents of relationship violence within our campus communities. Most importantly, we must be clear to extend President Obama’s pledge to victims of campus sexual assault; we must let those who have been victims of relationship violence know that we’ve ‘got their back’.