How Colleges Can Prevent Students From Dropping Out After A Sexual Assault Incident

Research shows victims’ grades and retention are negatively impacted.
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The number of reported sex crimes on U.S. college and university campuses more than doubled between 2001 and 2013, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Much of this increased reporting is due to growing public awareness, improved reporting practices and the removal of barriers to reporting incidents on college campuses. In response, most research has focused on risk factors, reporting practices, bystander intervention training and legal interventions. What has been neglected is how sexual and gender-based violence affects student retention and what we can do to help victims successfully complete their academic programs. And, with the 2015 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Admissions Directors reporting 58 percent of admissions directors missed enrollment goals, campus leaders can ill afford to ignore the effects increasing sexual violence may have on the student population.

It may not take a sophisticated research instrument to know that a Title IX case that dominates the national media can damage brand and reputation, leading to fewer applicants, a potential decrease in alumni donations, and loss of outside funding. The more important question, however, is what happens after the school announces its planned punishments and reforms, the lawsuits are settled and the TV trucks hit the road; Can student victims really get back to pursuing their degrees?

Previous studies have shown that victims of sexual violence often suffer from depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions following an assault or harassment. The Department of Education (ED) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) also provided guidance to IHEs in its April 2014 “Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence” that institutions need to consider appropriate interim measures, such as academic schedule changes and support, after an incident occurs. These may include changing course schedules, assignments, or tests. Overall, the IHE “should minimize the burden on the complainant.”

“There is a growing evidence that students who have experienced sexual or gender-based violence are more likely to be retained and graduate if they have ongoing access to a trusted, primary campus contact who can act as both a knowledgeable guide and empowered “barrier buster” on a wide range of academic and non-academic challenges.”

A 2014 study, “An Exploration of Sexual Victimization and Academic Performance Among College Women,” showed “significant evidence that the presence of rape or sexual assault in the lives of a woman, before and during college, had an identifiable impact on her academic success,” including a lower GPA. The study adds, “it follows that a woman suffering sequela in the aftermath of a rape may experience cognitive impairment such that she is less able to concentrate, organize a set of facts, or remember details in the course of her studies. Depression or anxiety may diminish the energy a woman has to commit to academic work or decrease her ability to engage with other students due to social anxiety, shame, or embarrassment. There is also evidence that victimized women may turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.”

Despite Title IX, the amendments made to the Clery Act in 2013, and the attention, resources, and research given to address the effects of sexual and gender-based harassment, there is little evidence to demonstrate that current remediation strategies have been effective or that students who seek assistance are being retained and graduating.

So how do you keep students in college?

There is a growing evidence, however, that students who have experienced sexual or gender-based violence are more likely to be retained and graduate if they have ongoing access to a trusted, a primary campus contact who can act as both a knowledgeable guide and empowered “barrier buster” on a wide range of academic and non-academic challenges.

The University of Central Missouri (UCM) began using a case management model in spring 2015 to provide a wide range of ongoing assistance, guidance and support to those who report sexual and gender-based violence incidents. This included counseling, academic support, Behavioral Intervention Team support, tutoring, ongoing contact with faculty, course schedule changes, access to childcare, financial aid guidance, access to food pantry resources, enhanced privacy and changes to room assignments.

Once identified, students who had experienced sexual harassment, domestic or dating violence, stalking, sexual exploitation or sexual assault recently or at some point in the past, were provided with active assistance. The vast majority of these students finished the semester, and 78% were retained to the fall. This is noticeably higher than the university’s overall retention rate of 71% for that same period. Over the next two semesters, the school continued and expanded its outreach to student victims and has seen retention statistics for victims increase from fall 2015 to spring 2016 to 84%.

“An approach at University of Central Missouri retained 78% of sexual assault, domestic violence and harassment victims, compared to the university's overall retention rate of 71%.”

For campuses unable to implement a model similar to UCM’s, it becomes more critical than ever to use a trauma-informed approach – an approach that recognizes the symptoms and effect of trauma in victims ― to sexual assault investigations and adjudications. It promotes increased access for complainants by encouraging their participation, while also allowing for a fair and equitable process for both complainants and respondents.

Fortunately, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault recognized the need for the kind of training both barrier busters and campus officials lacked, and charged the National Center for Campus Public Safety (NCCPS) in the 2014 Not Alone report to “develop a trauma-informed training program.” The NCCPS is launching their program this summer at the first Annual Trauma-Informed Sexual Assault Investigation and Adjudication Conference July 18-22 in Washington, D.C. The end result of this five-day conference is a more effective approach that 1) provides for a fair and balanced process that treats both complainants and respondents fairly and 2) helps campus officials avoid behaviors that tend to intimidate students and invites victims to start healing sooner. It’s an approach that can reduce victim-blaming and improve engagement and retention of students ― especially vulnerable populations like LGBTQ students whose cases are often neglected or hidden from the mainstream conversation.

By taking action this summer, campus officials can begin sowing the seeds of trusted support now, before more students falter under the crushing weight of sexual assault, a burden they far too often are forced to carry alone.