What makes a safe school? The issue of sexual violence on campus
By Scott Sager
A few years ago when my oldest daughter was still in high school, we began visiting colleges. On cue, every tour guide spoke about campus safety, pointing out “blue light” kiosks with alarms that would bring campus security in moments and shuttle stops for night rides back to the residence halls. We viewed key-card dorm entry systems and heard about emergency response plans. All this seemed reassuring at a time when “crime” meant burglary of an unlocked room or the theft of a bicycle.
Understanding the issues
Today, amidst the intense scrutiny of sexual violence at colleges and universities, a discussion of campus security means something entirely different. At last count, more than 100 schools were under federal investigation for possible Title IX violations. The Campus Accountability and Safety Act proposed by Congress would hold colleges more accountable for preventing sexual violence on campus, responding to incidents, and supporting victims.
Finding out about the prevalence of sexual violence on a particular campus is not a straightforward process. Many schools under Title IX investigation are working hard to create more responsive and transparent policies. Others, with superficially “better” statistics, may be underreporting incidents of sexual violence. Prevention programs should be in place (bystander intervention training during Orientation, for example), but on their own these programs aren’t a good indicator of how safe a campus is.
There are factors that increase a student’s risk of being involved in sexual violence, both as victim and aggressor. Taken together, they suggest that aspects of a school’s social culture may contribute to higher risk environments. The most comprehensive report about the issue is the National Institute of Justice’s Campus Sexual Assault Study. This and other studies consistently identify alcohol use as a significant factor in sexual violence, including rape and intimate partner violence. Other statistics — for example, that a majority of assaults take place in off-campus settings and fraternities, and that a majority of victims know their attackers and were in their first two years of school attendance — provide a guide to potentially dangerous situations.
Schools with less of a party scene and fewer fraternities might provide some degree of increased safety. Campuses where social life doesn’t center around heavy drinking on weekends but instead revolves around participation in arts, performances or other activities may indicate a less dangerous environment, but there is little concrete evidence to support this common sense conclusion.
Before you tour the colleges
There is no single way to evaluate “campus culture” but resources exist. The Fiske Guide to Colleges and The Princeton Review, two go-to books for high school students and their parents, include information on student life. Online sites such as Unigo.com and Bigfuture.CollegeBoard.com provide forums for college students to share thoughts about their schools, giving a less-edited view of campus climate.
Looking at the ways an institution responds to sexual violence can also provide insight. A school that has strong, sensitive protocols, invests in prevention programs and trains staff to respond to reports of assaults may show a top-down awareness of the issues. Also, having a proven record of enforcing rules against fraternities, athletes and other groups that sometimes seem to receive special treatment may be another sign that a school has strong messaging against sexual violence. This information is available on most college websites. Looking under “Student Life” tabs, “Counseling Services” or simply typing “sexual assault” in the search bar will list many campus resources and programs.
When you visit
Visiting a campus and taking the tour remains an important way to learn about a school. Remember that guides are selected and trained by the institution so they should be prepared for your questions. Ask them:
- Is sexual violence addressed in new student orientation?
- What prevention programs are in place? Are they required of all students?
- What services exist for victims of sexual assault? Who oversees the response? Does staff in public safety, health services and student affairs all receive special training?
- What’s a typical weekend on campus like? Are there alternatives to big parties?
The kiosks and bulletin boards in the student center can offer a picture of campus life. And talk to real (non tour guide) students if you get a chance (even at the risk of embarrassing your student). As I start to visit schools with my younger daughter, instead of asking about the shuttle service and blue light system, I’ll be asking about how student life is being impacted by the national discussion.
In high school
Perhaps the biggest impact I can have on my student’s safety is through what we talk about before she even steps foot on her future campus. Helping her think about drinking responsibly, understanding the risks of situations, and instilling in her the importance of watching out for her friends can only help her be safer at any school.
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