Campuses Have a Role in Addressing Domestic Violence

In the face of the sometimes overwhelming pink-washing we experience every October in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, some of us might not realize that October also marks Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This presents an excellent opportunity to increase our understanding of intimate partner violence. However, in light of the epidemic of campus sexual assault currently on the nation's front burner, as well as some new federal laws that kicked in on July 1, it's also a good time to reaffirm that colleges have a key role in efforts to combat the full spectrum of violence against women. Why? Because students' civil rights to an education free of sex discrimination are on the line. When students aren't safe, they can't learn. Civil rights are violated, and schools must be involved in the remedy.

As a former executive director of a domestic violence shelter as well as a former director of a campus-based women's center, I've witnessed firsthand the impact of gender-based violence on our campuses and in our communities. In the United States, an average of 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner. This adds up to more than 12 million women and men over the course of a single year, with short and long term effects that reverberate and compound across campus and throughout the nation.

Dating and domestic violence are a series of abusive patterns, sometimes involving physical violence and even sexual assault, that a perpetrator uses to gain and maintain power and control over their partner. For far too long, intimate partner violence has been dismissed as a personal issue, a private matter to be handled behind closed doors. But survivors and society as a whole pay the price when law enforcement, friends and family members, and bystanders alike fail to recognize both the abuse and its consequences.

Also in the shadows is the fact that college-aged women (18 to 24 and 25 to 34) generally experience the highest rates of intimate partner violence. While many people are familiar with the oft-cited statistic that one in five women is sexually assaulted during college, less well known is that more than one in five college women experience physical abuse, sexual abuse or threats of physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. In addition, according to a 2011 survey, 43 percent of dating college women reported experiencing some violent and abusive dating behaviors including physical, sexual, technological, verbal, or controlling abuse. Many of these students don't know where to go on campus to get help or information about their options.

Frankly, all domestic violence and dating violence survivors face challenges when it comes to reporting and/or seeking help in the face of such incidents, but these hurdles can be particularly high for college students. They may not come forward because they feel that their school is a close-knit community, and that they are too reliant on interconnected social and educational networks with their abuser. Students may also feel that school administrators don't understand, won't be supportive, or can't take any action even if students do make a report. Some students are away from home for the first time and may feel cut off from their families, churches, friends, and other familiar support systems.

When sexual harassment and violence occur on campus -- including in the course of a relationship -- survivors do have the support of their campus Title IX coordinators as well as a myriad of possible accommodations and community resources. In addition to Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in all federally-funded education programs, schools also have new requirements that when implemented appropriately will help bolster their response to intimate partner violence on campus.

When the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 passed, it included updates to the Clery Act which now require schools to report the number of dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking incidents on campus, in addition to long standing requirements to report the number of sexual assaults. Schools also must develop policies, procedures, and campus-wide training to ensure proper handling of such incidents - and these actions must be outlined in their annual public Clery Act security reporting. Developing prevention programming that's effective requires understanding the full scope of the problem - something that this new data collection will help schools to do. Smart schools will also include students, faculty, staff and community partners in their efforts. Neither advocates nor the U.S. Department of Education are expecting schools to do this alone.

Moving forward, colleges and universities must learn more about dating violence and domestic violence -- the students they serve are experiencing it every day and schools can and must play a key role in addressing it. This means campus officials need training to look for signs of dating and domestic violence, and to be aware of how it intersects with campus life. Further, much like effective sexual assault prevention programs, this work can't just start in college -- education regarding healthy and safe relationships as well as bullying and harassment prevention programs should start early in children's lives and continue throughout their education. By focusing on prevention, awareness, and response, schools can and must play an integral part of curbing both the incidents and the impact of domestic and dating violence on campus.

If you recognize yourself or someone you love as being a victim of domestic or dating violence, know that there is help and support available through the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).

Are you curious about where your school stands? Check out its annual Clery Act security report, which should be easy to find on your school's website.