What some MN sex-assault prevention advocates say about college report



With the release of the Obama administration’s report on how to better fight sexual assaults on college campuses, I called several sexual-assault prevention advocates in Minnesota for reaction.

As you may know, the report offers a number of recommendations about how campuses can better work to prevent sexual assaults, investigate campus claims and make the whole process more transparent.

It suggests model programs from various schools throughout the nation. At least one of the recommendations may become a requirement in years to come.

Among the ideas, schools should :

  • conduct campus climate surveys to provide a better measure of the problem on each campus;
  • institute bystander-intervention training programs — especially among male students — so they can step in when they see trouble;
  • provide clear information to students about where they can go on campus to speak confidentially; and
  • find better ways to investigate and adjudicate assault claims — ways that are more sensitive and confidential — so that the process doesn’t retraumatize the victim.

The government has also set up a website — NotAlone.gov — where students can find enforcement data for their school as well as sexual-assault victim resources.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” said Metropolitan State University human services professor Roberta Gibbons. “The idea that the federal government is paying attention to this — that we have the president of the United States making public service announcements on this issue — is something that I could never have imagined eight years ago.”

Gibbons, who for 12 years was project director at the University of Minnesota’s  Aurora Center on sexual violence, said that if the initiative progresses, “we’re going to start a national conversation about sexual assault on the college campus. … I think that’s the real change.”

A big development is how the government is approaching the prevention of sexual assault, said Donna Dunn, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Critics of conventional prevention strategies say too often they focus on the victims — their behavior, their drinking, how they dress — and not the root of the problem.

“What they’re trying to do is help potential victims not be victims,” Dunn said, “and that’s not prevention. That’s a significant shift in the language of this report.”

Sexual-assault experts said it’s difficult to say how big a change the recommendations represent. Schools across the state diverge widely in how they handle sexual assaults and prevention.

One recommendation that may be new to many colleges is that they survey the climate on their campuses.

Peggy LaDue, executive director of the Central Minnesota Sexual Assault Center in St. Cloud, said campus officials “don’t have a real, definitive answer about what really is happening on their campus.”The accuracy of the survey would depend on the methodology, she said, but “I definitely think it would be advantageous for campus administration to know what the scope of the problem is.”

Another element not widespread among campuses is bystander-intervention training.

Gibbons said the research on its effectiveness is still new, but said the program “gets people talking and thinking, ‘This isn’t just a problem of [other people.] It’s a bigger problem, and I have a part in the solution.'”

Lee LaDue of the St. Cloud State University’s Women’s Center says she believes strongly in such training, and St. Cloud students do get a short introduction to it when they first enroll.

But she says doing it well requires a lot of resources, and some campuses may struggle to find them.

“A one-time kind of thing doesn’t work,” she said. “I mean, it starts it. But you have to follow up with additional training and learning. Otherwise, it doesn’t really change behavior.”

The report’s suggestion that schools need to improve how they handle sexual assault investigations — including letting students know where they can go to speak in confidence about their assault — is something Peggy LaDue agrees with.

“A lot of students do not trust the process,” she said.

Gibbons said that although campuses have counselors, “this idea of having advocates who are trained in sexual assault, and who know the system, and who can explain to you what your options are — that is certainly not the norm.”

Katie Eichele, director of the U’s Aurora Center, said through a spokesman, said the report offers a lot of good practical information and guidelines.

“Campuses are always looking for clarity” on how to handle sexual-assault, she said.

But enforcement may remain a sticking point.

Peggy LaDue said not all campuses in her area are in compliance with federal regulations on how to handle sexual assaults.