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Tips and Trauma-Informed Considerations for Sexual Assault Awareness Events

Region IV-E Region IV-E
August 8, 2018

August begins planning for training and increasing awareness of sexual misconduct and assault on our campuses. Educators will promulgate the theme “Embrace Your Voice” this year to help individuals consider how their words can promote safety, respect, and equality to stop sexual violence before it happens. Colleges and universities around the world will recognize the campaign and its hashtag to publicize educational awareness. Students, faculty, and staff will wear the designated teal ribbon representing the campaign.

In the ever-changing environment of compliance ambiguity and change, administrators and educators spend much time and energy on policy and protocol. Sexual Assault Awareness month provides an opportunity to focus on preventive and educational programming.

At the University of Southern Indiana, the Sexual Assault and Gender Violence Prevention Group and Albion Fellows Bacon Center will host the annual “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes: The International Men’s March to Stop Rape, Sexual Assault and Gender Violence” event. Campus and community leaders participate in the event that finds the mayor, faculty, rugby players and local law enforcement officers wearing high heels as they join with other campus and community allies in recognizing this important topic. Other campuses around the country sponsor similar programs such as Take Back the Night and utilize initiatives like the No More campaign.

As we revise policies, we do so in a way that mitigates the trauma to all involved. The same approach should be utilized when planning awareness or educational campaigns and events. When directly planning or advising organizations designing this type of program, administrators should keep in mind the following considerations:

Center survivors

A useful guideline for developing Sexual Assault Awareness Month programming that is empowering and meets the goal of creating a safe, caring campus community for all is to ensure that survivors’ experiences are honored and treated with respect.  This can be as subtle as choosing to use language that is empowering rather than pathologizing (e.g., “survivors” versus “victims”) or emphasizing survivors’ resiliency and post-traumatic growth rather than the details of their trauma history.  Individuals involved in planning programming can also be attentive to using a trauma-informed approach, which emphasizes values such as safety, transparency, and peer support (see the [American College Health Association’s :linked text] resource on this topic for detail on key principles of this approach).  Employing a trauma-informed lens in program development benefits all participants, not just survivors.  Just as the principle of universal design makes resources more useable for all people while simultaneously increasing access for individuals with disabilities, trauma-informed programming helps to mitigate potential harm to survivors while also being inviting to other members of the campus community.

Take a collaborative approach

One of the key principles of the trauma-informed approach is collaboration, which recognizes that everyone has something they can contribute to discussions about preventing sexual violence.  Bringing as many partners into the process as possible – either as core contributors or as consultants -- helps to alleviate the potential for inadvertently approaching this content in a way that is alienating or retraumatizing.  Potential partnerships can bring together on-campus and off-campus stakeholders, offering a range of perspectives on the issue of violence prevention.  Contributors can include people who have familiarity with this topic both in a formal way (e.g., rape crisis advocates, counselors, etc.) and an informal way (i.e., trauma survivors who are at a place in their own healing where they feel capable of speaking out.  As with any sort of educational programming, people who are most directly impacted by the content need to be involved in some manner.  Just as you would not want to create a program for students of color without considering their needs and perspectives, content on gender-based violence and trauma should be conceptualized in a similar manner.

Practice principles of consent

Another element of the trauma-informed approach is empowerment and choice, which connects directly with another theme that is prevalent in sexual assault prevention programming: consent.  Provide participants with information regarding the material presented so that attendees know what they will experience when they attend or otherwise participate in campus events that address potentially distressing or traumatic topics.  This approach empowers students to make their best choices about the extent to which they feel comfortable engaging in the event and allows them the opportunity to map out a plan for self-care should the content prove to be overwhelming.  Other ways to ensure that programs are practicing the principles of consent content warnings through signage with disclaimers regarding trauma-related material or a statement by a speaker prior to the start of the event.  Another way to empower participants and reinforce choice is by providing information on resources for support both on and off campus.  If there are advocates or counselors available at the event, be sure participants know how they can identify and connect with those individuals during or after the program.  Additionally, ensure that students are aware of mandatory reporting guidelines, including when a report is not required (e.g., university sponsored events), so that participants can make an educated choice regarding the extent to which they participate in the program.  Whenever appropriate, try to emphasize that the university wants students to have “safe spaces” to share their stories.  Otherwise, students may develop the impression that the university is more concerned about compliance than providing them with care and support.

We hope this information is helpful for you as you begin planning and implementing preventive and educational programs on your campus.  For more information, we highly encourage you to consult the following resources:

 ACHA (American College Health Association) – Addressing Sexual and Relationship Violence: A Trauma-Informed Approach


 ACPA Beyond Compliance: Addressing Sexual Violence in Higher Education


TAASA (Texas Association Against Sexual Assault) – Tools for Change: An Introduction to the Primary Prevention of Sexual Violence


Navy: SAAPM (Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Month) Toolkit


NSVRC (National Sexual Violence Resource Center)


S. Bryan Rush serves as Associate Vice President for Campus Living at Auburn University. He is the Campus Safety and Violence Prevention KC Representative for NASPA IV-E

Stephanie J. Cunningham serves as a Psychologist in the Department of Mental Health Services at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

Alyssia D. Haymond is a Staff Counselor with a sexual assault prevention and response emphasis in the Counseling Center at the University of Southern Indiana.