It is not often that one person can make an important contribution toward preventing a pressing social problem, in this case, campus sexual assault. Now, students at Rutgers University-New Brunswick will have just such an opportunity.
From Oct. 27 through Nov. 9, the entire Rutgers student body in New Brunswick will be able to complete an online Sexual Assault Climate Survey (iSPEAK), and add their voice to the national discussion about how to eliminate sexual assault at colleges and universities. Rutgers is at the forefront of a national effort to measure the scope of the problem. The School of Social Work’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children (VAWC) was invited by the White House and the Office of Violence Against Women to pilot the survey, the only school chosen for this project. iSPEAK is based on a model created by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women.
“We named it iSPEAK because it gives students a voice and a chance to be heard. We encourage all students to take the survey and share their experiences with us, so we are better able to provide the White House with feedback on the survey experience,” said Sarah McMahon, acting co-director of VAWC, who is leading the survey.
In January, a task force convened by President Obama turned a spotlight on U.S. colleges and universities to pressure them for improved handling of campus sexual assaults. Among the new guidelines of the task force’s “Not Alone” report is the campus climate survey, which will be used to determine the scope of the problem and to assess students’ perceptions of a university’s response to sexual violence. A bipartisan group of senators also has introduced legislation to curb sexual assault on college campuses.
McMahon says that one in five women is sexually assaulted at college. Most often it is someone known by the victim, and attacks happen most frequently in students’ first and second years in college. Fewer than 5 percent of rape victims in college report the assault to law enforcement, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
“Sexual assault is a widespread, insidious public health problem on college campuses and in society at large", says McMahon, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work. "Research indicates that there are a number of devastating impacts on victims both in the short and long term, affecting their health, well-being and academic success. It is therefore essential that colleges respond to sexual assault in ways that effectively support survivors.”
The climate survey is part of a four-pronged approach by the White House to address the problem: provide a tool kit of recommendations for how schools can best conduct a climate survey; recommend prevention strategies based on survey findings; help schools respond effectively when assault happens; and make the federal government’s enforcement efforts more transparent.
The survey will provide a better picture of sexual assault on a college campus and explore student attitudes toward gender and sexual violence and readiness to intervene in cases of sexual violence. iSPEAK also examines why students may or may not use the resources available on campus. The results of the survey will be used to craft campus climate surveys for other colleges and universities, which may become a mandated part of current legislation.
Rutgers plans to use the results of the survey to assess its procedures for responding to student reports of sexual assault, and to help enhance education and supports for all students, including international and graduate students and members of the LGBTQ community. In the spring, VAWC will convene focus groups to garner more in-depth student feedback.
Many colleges and universities would receive a failing grade for how they handle sexual assault cases. A report issued this summer by a U.S. Senate subcommittee found that a third of the 440 schools surveyed failed to provide training clearly defining sexual assault to those who adjudicate assault claims brought by students.
“The research indicates that universities across the country vary widely in how well they address campus sexual assault, with some campuses offering no or few services. We are proud to say that at Rutgers, we have one of the most comprehensive programs that address sexual assault through the Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance, under the leadership of Ruth Anne Koenick. This program and the university’s willingness to address the issue serves as a model for other universities,” says McMahon.
The survey, which is fully supported by the Rutgers administration, is a joint effort with VPVA, the School of Social Work, Student Affairs, and the Chancellor's office, says McMahon. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/RutgersiSPEAK?ref=hl and https://twitter.com/RU_iSPEAK