Health & Safety

Addressing the Difficult Subject of Dating Violence on Campus

By Diane Schwemm

No parent wants to think something bad will happen to their student in college. Dating violence on campus is an especially difficult topic.

The statistic is scary – an estimated one in five women will experience sexual assault during her college years.* How can we prepare to talk about this with our sons and daughters? Where can we find support? I spoke with Jessica Ladd-Webert, Director of the Office of Victim Assistance at the University of Colorado Boulder, to get insight.

What is the definition of sexual assault? Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual contact. It is important to receive consent when involved in sexual activity.  Consent means permission for something to happen or agreement to do something. Simply stated, consent for sexual activity is “positive, enthusiastic cooperation” in both words and actions.

Can males be victims? Yes, our sons can be victims of sexual harassment, assault and dating abuse. It is important for parents who have students of any gender to read this article. For the purpose of this article, I refer to “our daughters.”

What is partner abuse? Partner abuse is when one partner in a relationship, whether new or long-term, uses physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse to gain and maintain power and control in the relationship.

How will I know if something like this happened to my daughter? The hard fact is that, unless she confides in you, you may not know. Trauma reveals itself differently with each person and there may not be obvious red flags. However, sudden social or academic changes can signal an underlying serious problem. Express your concern. Use “I” statements:

  • “I’ve noticed lately you haven’t mentioned hanging out with your usual group of friends.”
  • “I can tell you’re distracted, and it sounds like you’re struggling in chemistry which is usually your favorite class. Is there anything you want to talk about?”

If my daughter confides in me, how should I respond?

  • Ask if she is safe.  If she isn’t, help her determine where to go in order to be safe. Does she need immediate medical attention? Can she call a friend?
  • Follow her lead as the conversation unfolds. Let her decide what information she wants to share. The assault took control away from your daughter and it’s essential that she feel in control going forward. You may not get many details. Be patient, and listen.
  • Avoid asking “Why?” questions (“Why didn’t you leave the party when your friends did?” “Why did you go into his room?”). You don’t want to sound judgmental or blaming, and cause her to shut down. Instead ask, “What can I do to help you right now?”
  • Normalize her emotions. Let her know that everything she feels is normal. Summarize what you’ve heard: “I’m hearing that this is what happened and this is how you’re feeling.”
  • Help locate campus resources. Most schools have health services and counseling centers. Some have an Office of Victim Assistance or a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator. Many have peer advocates — fellow students trained in crisis intervention who can refer your daughter to counseling, medical, and legal resources. If she lives in a dorm, her Resident Advisor can help her. She can also call campus or local police.

What happens when my daughter contacts an office of victim assistance? At an OVA, like the one at University of Colorado Boulder, trauma-informed counselors/advocates will help your daughter understand her options, which can include reporting the incident to the school and/or the police, or getting support through counseling. These services are often free. If your student has concerns about who will be informed about the assault she should ask the offices/people she talks to about their confidentiality policies. If she decides to report the crime and the campus or local community has a sexual assault advocacy program, they may be able to go to meetings and court appointments with her.

Does she have to report the assault? It is your daughter’s decision to report an assault, or pursue disciplinary action or file criminal charges. There is no single correct way to respond to a sexual assault. If you hear from her soon after the event, you can remind her that the first 72 hours are crucial. She can seek medical attention to protect against sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy and to collect evidence of the sexual assault.

Is there anyone I can talk to? Campus counseling centers and offices of victim assistance welcome calls from concerned parents. They will provide general information, but they must respect your student’s privacy and, without her permission, they can’t reveal whether she’s made or kept an appointment or share information about her case.

You may need to call a friend, too. For more information, and to find local resources, visit The National Sexual Violence Resource Center website at or the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network at

*In January, 2014 President Obama cited this statistic while announcing the formation of a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. 

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