By C. Rob Shorette II (@C_RobShorette), NASPA Research & Policy Institute Fellow
This post benefited greatly from the wisdom of exemplary student affairs professionals who are dedicated to preventing sexual assault on their campuses, and we at NASPA are grateful for their contributions to this piece.
Public discourse around sexual violence on college campuses has been reinvigorated after the recent establishment of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, a reminder that sexual violence prevention remains a “huge priority” for the Obama Administration. In light of these recent developments, a diverse group of participants at the University of Virginia recently engaged in discussions that covered a range of controversial topics, yet still, one prevailing theme emerged as the headline of the conversation: sexual violence prevention on college campuses is complicated.
Depending on the perspective from which you view this issue (i.e. survivor, student affairs administrator, policymaker, etc.), one may have very different opinions of what the proper approach and desired outcomes should be for sexual violence prevention and student conduct policies and procedures at U.S. higher education institutions. Moreover, depending on that same perspective, one may feel very differently about the effects of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights’ (OCR) stance on the role institutions have in prevention and response. Regardless of the differences in perspective, the truth of the matter is that sexual violence prevention and Title IX compliance are essential components of higher education administration and clearly a priority for the federal government. More importantly, a student-centered, trauma-focused approach to prevention and compliance is critical to ensuring students’ safety on our nation’s college campuses.
In full appreciation of the complicated nature of these issues, I thought it would be helpful to hear from student affairs administrators who directly oversee sexual violence prevention efforts and Title IX compliance in various administrative capacities and who could provide insight into promising practices from their own experiences. Interestingly, popular education media portrays some moderate contention between policymakers and campus administrators, but my conversations with these practitioners uncovered some significant commonalities in their perceptions of the challenges and their desires to create meaningful and sustainable solutions.
Dr. Mandy Mount and Ms. Zabie Khorakiwala serve the University of California-Irvine’s Campus Assault Resources and Education (CARE) office, as the director and coordinator, respectively; and Dr. Derek Greenfield serves as the director of educational equity and inclusion and Title IX administrator at Alcorn State University—a historically black university (HBCU) in Mississippi. Regarding what they view as challenges college campuses face in addressing sexual violence issues, all three expressed similar concerns. Most notably, they agreed that campus-wide participation is critical to the success of sexual prevention efforts, but also one of the most significant challenges without strong organizational commitment. The full support and proper training of the entire campus community is particularly important when considering the variety of pathways students and survivors may choose to seek support.
There are also concerns among some higher education leaders regarding the complexity of the regulatory requirements that OCR has levied upon institutions for judicial procedure on college campuses. Some believe that the “lower standard of evidence” allowed in student conduct cases encroaches on the civil liberties of students; on the other hand, others have found the guidance materials to be especially helpful and effective. Regarding the suggested lower standard of evidence for campus judicial affairs involving sexual violence, there was a sense from Dr. Mount, Ms. Khorakiwala, and Dr. Greenfield that not only does it decrease the likelihood that an institution will fail to demonstrate responsiveness to a claim and invite a lawsuit, but that it also provides students an opportunity for justice that is often unattainable through the legal system.
Furthermore, the encouragement from the federal government “highlights the seriousness of the matter and establishes an additional level of credibility to our efforts,” said Dr. Greenfield. A tangible outcome of that additional credibility for Dr. Mount and Ms. Khorakiwala is that it has made it easier to collaborate with administrators in different functional areas and execute mandatory trainings that enhance the level of sexual violence prevention and response expertise across campus.
There were plenty of meaningful takeaways from my conversations with Dr. Greenfield, Dr. Mount, and Ms. Khorakiwala, in addition to the thoughtful insight already offered; yet, three points highlight the practical implications for higher education administrators seeking to successfully prevent and respond to instances of sexual violence on college campuses:
1. Build and strengthen cross-departmental relationships. Continuous refinement and delivery of comprehensive training modules is paramount to the success of prevention and response efforts, but even more important is that the efforts are campus-wide and addressed collectively. A model example is UCI’s Campus Assault Response Team (CART), which brings collective wisdom, professional perspectives, campus management, and agency responsibilities to bear when cases are brought forth.
2. Leverage your interactions and relationships with students and staff. Student affairs professionals often have the greatest access to and maintain some of the strongest relationships with students. These relationships provide a plethora of opportunities to have meaningful conversations with students that can promote healthy relationship habits and reinforce the commitment of the institution to providing safe spaces for all students.
3. Engage students in the design of sexual violence programming. Quite possibly the most essential piece to the puzzle is student involvement. Peer influence has proven to be an effective tool in a variety of contexts and this one is no different. Students have the ability to model positive bystander behavior, implement social norming activities, create awareness, and so much more. Another model example is Alcorn State’s “Diversity Champions” student organization. Under the leadership of Dr. Greenfield, students take ownership of sexual violence prevention on campus through regular programming and training workshops.
As an accompaniment to the recommendations above and the documents referenced throughout this post, you may also find the inaugural edition of Legal Links to be of interest. Released earlier this year, this joint publication between NASPA’s Research and Policy Institute and the Education Law Association examines the legal dimensions of sexual misconduct and provides action-oriented guidance to institutions while recommending immediate and effective steps to eliminating harassing conduct, preventing its occurrence, and addressing its effects on college campuses.