Research, Discuss Sexual Violence on College Campuses as a Family

Briana Boyington

As sexual assaults on college campuses make headlines, many parents of prospective college students struggle to address the issue with their families and universities.

In May, the Department of Education released the names of more than 50 institutions that are under investigation for possible Title IX violations, which concern the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints. In June, the Obama administration proposed changes to a federal law that governs the crimes that colleges must report.

In early July, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., released a report that found that many of the 440 institutions surveyed failed to comply with federal requirements for handling sexual assault cases. And just last week representatives of more than 60 schools gathered at a summit to discuss sexual assault prevention, education and response on college campuses.

[Learn more about how to thoroughly research campus safety.]

Sexual violence can be an uncomfortable topic to discuss, so experts provide the following advice on what prospective students and their parents should know about the issue as they research colleges.

-- Know your rights: Experts say it's important for students to understand their rights before they go to college in case something happens to them or a friend.

Families can find specific information about the assistance, prevention and procedures schools are legally required to provide under the Clery Act and Title IX. Those federal laws require schools that receive federal funding to publish crime statistics and provide gender equity, respectively. Families should read an institution's annual security report to find specific information about sexual assaults, experts say.

The proposed changes to the Clery Act aren't expected to be finalized until 2015, but some will take effect this school year, says S. Daniel Carter, campus safety advocate and director of the VTV Family Foundation's 32 National Campus Safety Initiative. Institutions are required to expand their existing policies and update their annual security report for October to include a summary of those policies, according to a letter released by the Department of Education last week.

Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center For Security on Campus, encourages families to look to the Clery Center, the Department of Education, the Victim Rights Law Center and the Not Alone report for victim resources and more information on the legal requirements.

[Read these frequently asked questions about crime statistics and the Best Colleges rankings.]

Families should understand their rights in both the college and justice systems.

Victims of an assault should report it not only to the college, but also to the police, says Shanlon Wu, a defense attorney for students charged with college conduct and criminal offenses and partner at the Wu, Grohovsky & Whipple law firm.

Wu says investigations into sexual assaults by college campuses can vary widely and unlike criminal investigations, there's often not much careful review of the evidence. Universities rarely work with police, he says.

-- Talk to schools: Statistics only provide part of the picture. Underreporting of sexual assaults is a significant issue on college campuses. In some cases, a higher number of reported sexual assault incidents can signal that a school has adequate programs in place, experts say.

[Ask these questions on your college tour.]

It's important for students and parents to ask schools the right questions, including the steps colleges have in place to respond to alcohol violations, how they prevent and respond to sexual assault and whether they have a process that allows them to assess the campus climate to identify and resolve other factors that could contribute to sexual violence on campus.

Families should also look at the resources a school devotes to sexual assault prevention and management and compare those across the institutions they're considering, experts say. That includes determining if a school has an entire department or program dedicated solely to sexual violence.

Students should ask about the relationship that schools have with local police and community support organizations and what sort of response teams are in place. Ideally, students should be able to find all of the resources they need in one place.

Prospective students can also use informal college visits to talk to current students and get a sense of how big of a problem alcohol violations and abuse are on campus, which may relate to the prevalence of sexual violence, experts say.

-- Discuss sexual violence as a family: Experts encourage families to have discussions about sexual responsibility, consent, drinking and assisting students in need before students leave for school.

While both men and women can be victims of sexual assault, advice for sexual violence prevention is often aimed at female students. Experts say teaching women the importance of being mindful of their surroundings is important, but it's also important for families to talk with male students.

Wu encourages families to discuss bystander intervention, which encourages students to speak up and assist if they see another student in distress.

For example, if a male student sees a female student who appears to be drunk, disoriented and alone, he should safeguard the situation by alerting others, finding her friends and making sure the woman gets home safely, Wu says.

That's not the only conversation that parents should have with a son headed to college.

"If you're not talking to your son about what consensual sex really is and respecting an individual's choice to not engage in sexual activity or to limit how much sexual activity they're willing to engage in, we're not actually doing our part to address sexual violence," says Laura Dunn, executive director of SurvJustice.

"We need to have those conversations," she says.

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Briana is an education Web producer at U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at