Universities Adopt New Initiatives to Prevent Sexual Assaults on Campuses

Aug 25, 2014, 1:36 PM

Sexual assaults on college campuses have grabbed headlines in recent months and for good reason: One in five U.S. women are raped or otherwise sexually assaulted during their college years, often during their freshman or sophomore year and often by someone they know. Last winter, President Obama established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. This marked a call to action to help prevent sexual assaults on campuses; to help schools respond effectively when an assault does occur; and strengthen federal enforcement efforts, including the launch of a website to make with various resources for students and schools.

Meanwhile, various colleges and universities have stepped up their own sexual assault prevention efforts. The Indiana Campus Sexual Assault Primary Prevention Project guides Indiana colleges and universities in the prevention of sexual violence through education and technical assistance; as well as the promotion of bystander intervention skills and healthy, respectful relationships.

Earlier this year, the University of Massachusetts Amherst launched a program called UMatter at UMass, which promotes “active bystander intervention” to prevent sexual assaults. The program uses “Three Ds” to help someone who witnesses a situation where a sexual assault is threatened know what to do:

  • “Direct": Stepping in and confronting dangerous behavior in a direct and clear—but non-confrontational—way
  • “Distract”: Using tactics that will divert behavior before it becomes violent or harmful
  • “Delegate”: Enlisting help from acquaintances or law enforcement professionals to help prevent an assault

“Our simple starting point was our determination to build a more caring community, cementing the idea that we care about each other at UMass and that we demonstrate that care without first having a crisis or tragedy,” said Enku Gelaye, vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life at UMass. “With active bystanders, we want to reinforce a culture of active engagement. This is a very specific concept. The idea is that students have to take an active role in monitoring their environment and being engaged and caring about each other.”

Similarly, the University of Iowa, among other schools, has begun requiring that students take an online, video-based program called Every Choice. The program is designed to reduce sexual assault and dating violence by empowering bystanders and giving them the tools they need to intervene in a potentially violent situation—before an assault occurs.

During orientation at Rutgers University in New Jersey, incoming freshmen are now required to take a crash course about sexual assault risks and circumstances where sexual assaults may occur. Rutgers has also developed a program called SCREAM Athletes, which uses student athletes to explore attitudes, beliefs, community standards and aspects of the athletic culture that set the stage for interpersonal violence, including sexual assault.

The hope is that prevention programs such as these can begin to change students’ attitudes and behaviors—and as a result the campus culture—so that sexual assault becomes unacceptable and campuses become safer for women and men alike. That way, students can focus on the business of learning and growing academically, socially and emotionally, while always feeling safe in their college communities.

>>Bonus Link: Read a previous NewPublicHealth interview with Dorothy Edwards, executive director of Green Dot etc., which provides training for high schools and colleges on bystander intervention.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.