Emory builds upon innovative efforts to prevent sexual violence

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | May 29, 2014

Story image

Campus efforts to address sexual violence include a series of outreach events during Relationship Violence Awareness month in October. Emory Photo/Video.

Though sexual violence has long been a concern on U.S. college campuses, attention to the crime and its consequences catapulted to national prominence last month when the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault issued a report calling upon colleges and universities to step up prevention programs and ensure that response to an incident is effective and optimal.

The report arrived amid a wave of media coverage that highlighted the far-ranging scope of sexual violence, including Pentagon reports of a surge in sexual assaults in the military, accounts of sexual misconduct among college athletes, and the U.S. Department of Education's decision to release a list of 55 colleges and universities currently under review for their policies, procedures and handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints — a list that includes Emory University.

For Emory, the White House recommendations around reducing sexual misconduct — from mandatory campus climate surveys and transparent policies to bystander intervention programs and improved enforcement — strongly align with the University's existing strategic efforts to create a safe and supportive environment for all students, says Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Ajay Nair, who appreciates the report's clarity and scope.

"Sexual violence is one of the greatest social justice and public health issues of our time — no student should ever live in fear of violence on our campus," Nair says.

"Our obligation as an institution is to ensure that students can flourish, that they can reach full potential," he adds. "You simply can't do that if sexual violence occurs on your campus. And right now, it's an issue on many college campuses."

According to the U.S. Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, one in five women and one in 33 men will be the target of sexual violence at some point during their college years — most often perpetrated by someone they know during their first or second year.

Nair says that as a major liberal arts research university and an acknowledged resource in public health and human behavior, Emory is uniquely positioned to help change that landscape.

From extensive student support and prevention resources available through the Respect Program and a heightened focus on sexual violence during new student orientation to recent work to re-evaluate Emory's sexual misconduct policy and create a centralized hearing board system, the University already has a solid foundation to build upon and strengthen prevention strategies, he notes.

"We have all the pieces of the puzzle, all of the ingredients right here," Nair says. "Now it's just a matter of putting it all together to make the very best community possible."

Combining resources to create change

Given its multidisciplinary strategies and resources, Emory has sought input from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to bring together the strengths of a top research university with the expertise of the nation's central health and public safety institute to develop a comprehensive, evidence-based strategy aimed at preventing and reducing sexual violence.

In April, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Claire Sterk and Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Nair appointed the Emory University Sexual Violence Prevention Visioning Task Force, a new multi-disciplinary alliance that melds the intellectual talents of key campus resources — including faculty, staff, researchers, practitioners and student leaders — with CDC behavioral scientists who study violence prevention on a national scale.

The initiative will add to Emory's growing list of resources and programs designed to reduce sexual violence and offers an opportunity to not just follow best practice but also create best practice, according to Nair.

"This is an unprecedented opportunity to leverage the intellectual strength of our faculty with the expertise of the CDC to inform our practice," he explains.

"We're actively utilizing these great resources to develop new, innovative, evidence-based prevention strategies to help us change the culture on our campus, so it's clear to every member of our community that we will not tolerate any form of sexual violence at Emory," Nair says.

In creating the new task force, Sterk and Nair asserted that sexual violence on college campuses can not only undermine students' academic careers, but has the power to create an "economic and social ripple effect" over their lifespans.

The task force will meet bi-weekly throughout the summer to review Emory's existing support and prevention programs and provide recommendations by this fall intended to strengthen Emory's ongoing efforts to reduce the prevalence of sexual violence on campus.

Federal support to curb sexual violence

Even as the White House report admonished colleges to improve sexual violence prevention efforts, it acknowledged that many schools are making important strides toward that goal, crediting the efforts of a "new generation of student activists."

For students and staff who work with Emory's support and prevention programs, the White House report offered an important affirmation, says Lauren "L.B." Klein, assistant director of Emory's Respect Program, which engages the campus community to prevent and respond to sexual assault and relationship violence.

"To have federal support for the work we're doing and to see that set as a national priority? I know that our students feel galvanized, because this report validates a lot of the work that they've already been doing," says Klein, who will co-chair the Emory/CDC task force with Jessica McDermott Sales, associate research professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education at Emory's Rollins School of Public Health.

Emory rising senior Samantha Grayman, who will intern with the Respect Program this summer, says that while the White House report was encouraging, work remains to be done.

 "Some people were saying that it was a huge victory, but we're actually already doing a lot of what is being recommended," Grayman says.

"Obviously I'm grateful that leaders are paying attention, and we're lucky at Emory to have the Respect Program because a lot of schools don't."

The Emory/CDC Task Force challenge

This summer, the new Emory/CDC task force will closely examine White House recommendations to ensure that the University has fully addressed them, Nair says.

Building upon Emory's established strengths in the areas of sexual violence prevention and support, the task force will also provide recommendations in four key areas:

  • Surveillance infrastructure and measures of success
  • Assessing current prevention capacity and needs moving forward, including fiscal and personnel resources
  • Appropriate prevention strategies, including individual training and education, relationship-level approaches — such as bystander intervention — and community strategies.
  • Program evaluation

The task force is among a wave of partnerships intended to address sexual violence now taking shape on college campuses across the country, says CDC behavioral scientist Dawnovise Fowler, a member of the task force. Fowler serves in the research and evaluation branch of the Division of Violence Prevention, part of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

"The inclusion of other relevant organizations and agencies, in partnership with higher-education institutions, only makes sense to address sexual violence on college campuses," Fowler says.

"The mission of this task force is on point in the sense that there needs to be a multi-disciplinary approach to this work. Experts and stakeholders in prevention as well as services are both needed at the table. These efforts must be integrated in order to increase the chances of successfully addressing the full extent of campus-based sexual violence perpetration and victimization."

The power of student engagement

Emory has long provided support for students and sexual violence survivors through the Center for Women at Emory and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

But as the response to sexual violence on U.S. college campuses began to expand beyond survivor support over the past five years, Emory has created new positions dedicated to sexual assault prevention, education and response.

Since then, Klein, who came to Emory in 2011, has helped strengthen and advance a new strategy that promotes student-centered, campus-based advocacy, prevention and outreach.

"We've become a model for how students and staff can really work together," Klein says, citing campus resources that now include:

  • The Respect Program: a student-centered program within the Office of Health Promotion that engages the Emory community to prevent and respond to sexual violence; also founded and hosts "RespectCon," a national conference on social justice and the prevention of sexual violence in school settings, which drew more than 100 attendees from 29 institutions and 16 states this year.
  • Sexual Assault Peer Advocates (SAPA): an organization founded and operated by students which has provided training for nearly 2,000 students across campus on how to help survivors of sexual assault.
  • Alliance for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP): a student-led organization that raises awareness about sexual violence through rallies, speak-outs, workshops, panels and other events.
  • Issues Troupe: a student-centered program based out of the Office of Multicultural Programs and Services that uses theatre to explore complex issues that affect college students, including sexual assault.
  • Creating Emory: an orientation program that enlists first-year students to have a voice in shaping norms and values within their campus community.
  • Haven: a sexual violence awareness online training module that will be required for every incoming undergraduate, graduate and professional student beginning this fall.
  • Prevention staffing: Drew Rizzo, a health promotion specialist for the Respect Program, was hired last October to focus on prevention efforts, social norm campaigns, and collaborating with fraternities and sororities.
  • Centralized sexual misconduct adjudication, which allows allegations to now go before one hearing board with trained faculty, staff and student adjudicators, as opposed to each professional school and college handling accusations its own way.
  • Eagles Speak, a student organization that encourages civil dialogue around controversial issues through campus debate.
  • Title IX deputy coordinators and investigators, members of the Emory community trained to coordinate compliance efforts and investigate complaints of sexual misconduct, creating expanded channels for reporting. Title IX is the federal law that requires colleges and universities to address sexual harassment and misconduct.

Campus efforts to encourage reporting

This spring, the U.S. Department of Education released a list of colleges and universities currently under Title IX review by the department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

Although Emory was included on that list, University administrators have said that the investigation centers upon an OCR compliance review of policies and procedures and was not prompted by a specific complaint, adding that Emory is cooperating fully with the review.

Part of the attention may have stemmed from an increase in the number of Emory students reaching out to campus resources with reports of sexual violence — a trend that most likely reflects Emory's ongoing efforts to increase education and awareness around the issue, Nair says.

From 2010 to 2012, the number of Emory students on the Atlanta and Oxford campuses reporting forcible sex offenses grew from 10 to 25, according to Clery Act reports.

While the goal is to see sexual violence eradicated at Emory, Nair says an uptick in the number of students stepping forward to talk about it may also offer the best evidence that campus outreach, education and dialogue efforts are working, he says.

According to referral data from the Respect Program, approximately one-third of their clients who sought help were referred by SAPA-trained peers in the 2011-2012 academic year — that number jumped to 54 percent in 2012-2013.

"One interpretation might be, 'You have a problem on your hands,' and that would be right," Nair says. "But we're also working hard to create an environment where students feel comfortable reporting sexual assault."

Holding each other accountable

This summer, Emory will launch the Title IX Student Envisioning Board which will bring together student leaders from around campus to discuss policy, process, program and prevention efforts.

"They'll help update Emory's sexual misconduct policy, and I'll ask them to weigh in on the policy as well as any programs that would be helpful in distributing messages about Title IX," says Carolyn Livingston, senior associate vice president of Campus Life and Emory Title IX coordinator for students.

Working with the Emory/CDC task force, the student group will also help design and distribute a campus climate survey to be issued Spring 2015, a year before the White House report's recommended deadline, adds Livingston, who is joined in her endeavors by University Title IX Coordinator Lynell Cadray, associate vice provost, institutional equity and inclusion, in the Office of the Provost.

This fall, for the first time, all new Emory graduate and undergraduate students will also be required to participate in Title IX training "to understand what it is and why it is important for the University," she says.

"I really think there is a cultural shift that's going on," Livingston says. "I think we're seeing students take some sort of ownership around this — holding each other accountable for what is and isn't acceptable in our community."

Some students report that the impact and growing visibility of Emory's sexual violence prevention resources has already made a difference.

"Over the last three years, I've definitely seen change," says SAPA President Elizabeth Neyman, a rising Emory senior in interdisciplinary studies in society and culture.

 "When I first got here, activism around this involved a few engaged students, mostly sexual assault survivors, trying to get students to care. Now, there's so much more visibility and involvement.

"I think we've reframed sexual violence as everyone's issue. Everyone knows what SAPA is, no one has an excuse not to know what consent is, and everyone has the responsibility to support survivors and listen to friends," she says.

Change the community, change the culture

In the end, efforts to eradicate sexual violence on college campuses will likely hinge upon a key element — student willingness to help drive cultural change, according to Nair.

"Like other institutions, we have work to do to shift that culture," Nair says. "But it's important to send the message that it's not just students that need to be engaged, it's all members of our community."

Moving ahead, it will help that support for sexual assault prevention can be traced from one-on-one student advocacy to the highest levels of Emory's leadership, Nair says.

Emory trustee Laura J. Hardman, 67C, chair of the Board of Trustees' Campus Life Committee, emphasizes the University community's broad support for addressing the issue.

"There is commitment from across the enterprise to efforts toward prevention of sexual violence in our community — trustees and alumni, students, faculty and staff," Hardman says.

"I think Emory is well-positioned to address one of the most intractable problems facing our society globally with resources which include engaged community members, innovative programs, and research upon which to base our efforts."