When Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wanted to kick off a nationwide campaign on sexual assault awareness, they chose to herald it at the University of New Hampshire.
“You guys are doing it great,” Biden told the University during his speech in early April. “You’re the model for the country.”
He was referring to the university’s rape research, prevention efforts, crisis center and awareness campaigns -- initiatives that deal with rape head-on at a time when it is often easier for universities to simply ignore.
“All of this is making sure that everyone on this campus and [in] this community is a part of the solution,” Biden said. “They’re telling you how to safely intervene. … I wish all colleges had a little more UNH Wildcat in them.”
Not all universities, though, are exemplary, according to Duncan.
"Every school would like to believe it is immune from sexual violence but the facts suggest otherwise," Duncan told the crowd. According to data provided by the United States Education Department, nearly 20 percent of college women will be victims of attempted or actual sexual assault. So will about six percent of undergraduate men.
Biden’s staff saw the program up close last September, when professors Victoria Banyard, Robert Eckstein and Sharon Potter briefed Lynn Rosenthal, the White House advisor on violence against women, about their work. They also attended a reception at Biden’s home to celebrate the 16th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act.
“Sexual assault is a problem that most universities deal with in silence,” said Victoria Banyard, a professor of psychology at UNH who directs its Prevention Innovations: Research and Practices for Ending Violence Against Women on Campus and serves as an advisory board member at its rape crisis center. “There’s always been an ambivalence about dealing with this. But it happens everywhere. If we can acknowledge the problem, we can be so much more effective at addressing it than if we just pretend it’s not our problem.”
“Every school has this problem,” said Alison Cares, an assistant professor of Criminal Justice & Criminology at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. “No school wants to admit it.”
While no UNH personnel claim a dramatic decrease in reported assaults -- in fact, the opposite is often observed, since more awareness generally leads to more reporting -- universities around the country have taken notice of what they see as a change of tone at UNH: more students are willing to engage in conversations about the tough issues surrounding rape.
HISTORY OF A CRISIS CENTER
In 1987, a highly-publicized dormitory room gang rape rocked idyllic Durham, NH.
A little after midnight on February 19, three UNH sophomores emerged from a bar after drinking about six beers each. Upon returning to their dorms, they found an 18-year-old freshman named Sara, who had been drinking at a fraternity party. Each had sex with her, one at a time. They boasted about it.
“It was a pretty typical story,” Banyard said. “The people at the residence hall gathered around as onlookers, but nobody did anything to help her.”
After a public disciplinary hearing -- in which Sara’s sexual history was raised -- each perpetrator was found not guilty on May 7. Incensed by the injustice, the campus exploded. Students felt the need to intervene, protesting in deans’ offices and across campus. They had had enough.
“It was a real call to action,” Banyard said.
Eventually, the university created an ad hoc crisis center, which evolved into the University of New Hampshire Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program. It includes a 24-hour prevention line, peer advocates to help survivors and prevention efforts.
Since the 1987 incident, a group of faculty has conducted studies, funded by the office of the university president, about rape on UNH’s campus. “This allows us to really look at what’s going on in our community,” Banyard said. “It allows us to ... see which prevention measure works in terms of changing attitudes in behavior. We’re taking some steps in the right direction.”
Similarly, Rutgers University in New Jersey began its rape prevention programming in the early 1990s, in response to an assault. A task force formed around the handling of the event, and an entire department formed around sexual assault and crime victim assistance.
CURRENT PROGRAMMING: HOW IT’S DONE
It’s hard for statistics to mean anything when they’re just numbers. UNH’s prevention programs, Banyard said, take pains to make assault relatable.
Banyard conducted a collaborative research project (funded in part by the Justice Department) that concluded educating bystanders helps reduce sexual violence. So she set to put her findings to work.
The result was the creation and facilitation of “Bringing in the Bystander,” a program that some University of New Hampshire students now participate in when they get to campus.
Bringing in the Bystander has two components: in-person education and a social marketing campaign. Students learn in both short and long sessions about how to intervene in an assault. Then they’re exposed to banners, buses wrapped in signs and posters reinforcing the message -- in other words, a media blitz.
“We find that with a different number of groups, it does seem to shift attitudes related to bystander behavior,” Banyard said. “People report doing more.” She is now conducting further evaluative research, thanks to a Center for Disease Control and Prevention grant.
In addition, Jane Stapleton, a research instructor in women’s studies and family studies at UNH, and a coordinator of prevention innovations, helped create the “Know Your Power” campaign, which urges viewers to intervene when they see intimate partner abuse.
The prevention efforts supplement UNH’s rape crisis center, which is able to offer legal confidentiality because it receives 40 percent of its funding from the state of New Hampshire and the federal government. At UNH, six employees work on prevention, and another six in SHARPP. About 40-45 students volunteer in the program, which has an annual budget of $350,000.
“We comply with federal regulations like the Clery Act, but we also comply with the state standards of what a crisis center should look like,” said Mary Mayhew, SHARPP’s director. This means that the program can offer legal confidentiality and victim advocates trained under state coalition standards who support survivors in hospital beds in the dead of the night.
“We meet the survivor where they are and we do all we can to give as much relief as possible,” Mayhew said.
The office backs survivors from start to finish. After contributing on-site support, SHARPP guides them through the UNH disciplinary process. It helps students seek restraining orders against their assailants. It helps them alter living arrangements, works with professors to make up work, and removes contact information from the campus directory.
RIPPLES OFF CAMPUS
Cares, of UMass, Lowell, said her interest in bystander programming began on a personal level, with her colleagues and Banyard looking for a way to collaborate.
Her approach incorporates aspects of the Bystander curriculum, but not all of it. “We’re very different,” Cares said. “We’re an urban campus. We’re non-contiguous. We have a high minority population.”
And while UMass, Lowell, is ramping up its prevention efforts, it doesn’t have its own rape crisis center. “We don’t have an institutionalized response for violence against women, so we send people to the local center,” Cares said.
With the help of a CDC research grant, Cares’ group decided to look at freshmen. “We wanted to get to them as early into the college social life as possible,” she said, describing the community-based approach. “We want it to be effective because the paradigm is changing. We’re not just telling them how to not be the perpetrator. This is so much more empowering.”
The school is finishing its second year piloting the program and the Know Your Power campaign. The research grant allows for Cares and other sociologists to track the effects of the initiative.
The process starts in the classroom. Peer educators introduce themselves, and after some discussion show a video of an interview with a man named Frank. He talks about women as targets and describes a rape -- a woman was struggling, he used his arm to hold her down, and after that she didn’t struggle anymore -- without calling it that.
“It jolts people out of the idea that all assaults on college campuses are perpetrated by drunk people who don’t know what’s going on,” Cares said.
The second session features “empathy-building activities,” said Lauren Wetzonis, a UMass, Lowell, senior and a peer facilitator for the program. Each person gets five sheets of paper, and writes several things, including the name of the person he or she trusts most. “Everyone rips up their own paper,” Wetzonis said. “We discuss how a person who went through sexual violence may not have this person anymore. The person may not believe them. This person may blame them.”
By putting a person into the shoes of a survivor of assault, Wetzonis said, students feel the psychological effects of rape, if only for a moment. “Everyone gets it,” she said.
Rutgers University is also engaged in a similar study, using components of Bystander programming to suit its own needs and supplement its “Scream Theater,” a peer-education program created in 1992.
“We’ve found some promising results in terms of students’ attitudes about sexual violence and their willingness to intervene,” said Sarah McMahon, an associate professor of social work at Rutgers. “We wanted to take that evaluation to the next step.” So she, too, applied for and received a CDC grant.
Rutgers is engaged in an experimental longitudinal study to see how the UNH program -- mixed with the university’s own offerings -- pans out in the long run. “We’re hoping to see that the effects don’t trail off a year after that first bump of awareness right after the program,” McMahon said.
A MOMENT OF AWARENESS OR SUSTAINABLE CHANGE?
Mayhew, of UNH, was accustomed to working under the radar, so a phone call from the university’s event planning office surprised her: Duncan and Biden would be coming to campus, she learned, to use UNH’s services as a backdrop to a major announcement at the start of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
At the April 4 event, Biden and Duncan announced new guidelines that directed universities and schools to use Title IX of the federal Civil Rights Act to respond more proactively to sex crimes.
“Having [the vice president] draw attention has been great,” Mayhew said.
Alison Kiss, executive director of Security on Campus, Inc., is optimistic about the sustainability of the UNH programs’ spotlight.
“It sent such a message to have the vice president out there giving that speech. It shows a top-down approach, and we need to deal with this on all levels,” she said. “Besides, it was great to have a male up there.”
Banyard urges looking at the speech and the Title IX guidance in the context of a much larger problem. “The take-home message is that it’s complicated and it’ll take a multi-prong approach to deal with it,” Banyard said. “The guidelines are one facet. There’s no one thing that’s going to end this tomorrow.”
But Cares is wary that the announcement, and the month, might herald only an initial round of focus on a problem that merits attention year-round.
“I heard on NPR that things are changing now that Title IX is being used,” she said. “Nothing has changed about sexual assaults on college campuses. There’s not this huge wave of assault going up or down. You’ve got to get the administration willing to say this is a problem that we need to solve.”
Cares wants to see more university presidents and boards of trustees acknowledging rape on their campuses -- and openly fighting against it. She added: “I’m hoping that a spurt of colleges doing something will lead to an institutionalized change, and not just a moment of lip service devoted to it.”