Reducing sexual and intimate partner violence and harassment in our education system: high schools and colleges are uniquely positioned to facilitate cultural change.

As attention to the prevalence of sexual and intimate partner violence and harassment in all sectors of society and its devastating impacts on victims and perpetrators continues to grow, high schools and colleges are uniquely positioned to be part of the solution in reducing violence in our society. Media attention focusing on students who were victimized while attending high school or college and the recent focus on how Title IX applies to victims in K-12 schools and post-secondary institutions, has educational leaders reflecting on how to ensure their institutions offer a safe environment for both students and faculty. Unfortunately, the first instinct many educational leaders have is to find a “quick fix.” Following the release of the 2011 Dear Colleague letter, this was just the case and cottage industry blossomed offering opportunities for college and university administrators to “check the box” with online training programs, glossy pamphlets or statements that pledge not to harass. These approaches are not effective, and often have little to no research base and few connections to best practices in prevention. In fact, many current violence education and prevention approaches reinforce victim-blaming myths and are a waste of valuable institutional resources.

Reducing sexual and intimate violence and harassment in educational institutions involves developing strategies that stop violence before it occurs and creating organizational cultures that support safe and respectful environments. Simply telling someone not to perpetrate, teaching them about the policy and asking them to sign a pledge not to perpetrate will not stop them from committing violence and harassment. Educational leaders must be at the forefront of these efforts by creating environments that cultivate respect, community responsibility, and shared visions for safety. 

A framework for creating organizational cultural change that supports respect and safety and does not tolerate harassment and assault can be thought of as a pie with three equal slices (see attached graphic). 

One-third of the pie is “Resources and Supports for Victims.” Educational institutions need clear policies that define sexual and intimate violence and harassment and provide clear instructions (in an age appropriate manner) for what students and employees should do if they are a victim of sexual and intimate partner violence, harassment or stalking or witness a friend or colleague being victimized. Educational institutions must offer trauma-informed resources and supports, both within the institution and the community, for students or employees who disclose an incident of violence or harassment. Students and employees must know where and how they can report these incidents and understand that the institution has a fair and confidential process for disclosure that will not hurt their educational standing (students) place them in jeopardy of losing their position (employees). Students and employees must have regular training on how to support a friend and colleague who discloses a victimization and understand that they have a responsibility to assist.  All students and employees must know they will not face retribution for helping someone in need.

Another third of the pie is “Due Process for the Accused.” All students and employees must know that their educational institution has a zero-tolerance policy for all types of sexual and intimate partner violence and harassment. The consequences of these behaviors must be clearly identified and enforced equitably for all students and employees regardless of their status in the institution. As part of this enforcement, educational institutions must have precise protocols and procedures for reviewing and investigating all types of sexual and intimate partner violence and harassment complaints. These protocols and procedures should be shared with all members of the institution (age appropriately). Those accused need to be treated fairly and provided with clear guidance on the investigation.  

Historically, most of the attention has been paid to the first two slices of the pie. However, the last slice of the pie, “Comprehensive Organizational Prevention,” has the potential to have the most lasting and impactful effect on supporting a safe and respectful educational institutions that do not tolerate sexual and intimate partner violence, and harassment. Educational leaders must acknowledge that creating this type of environment requires a comprehensive strategy that engages all student and employees. All members of the educational institution need to understand the institution’s sexual and intimate partner violence and harassment policies and reporting structures, know how to recognize this type of violence and support someone who has been victimized, as well as how to safely intervene to stop harmful behavior. Additionally, administrators, employees and students need to learn skills to create safe and respectful communities. This can include learning how to interact with another person without belittling or sexualizing/objectifying them, creating opportunities where students and employees with less status or power can contribute to organizational policies and practices, and building a sense of community. Everyone needs to take responsibility for supporting a safe and respectful institutional culture. Policies should be shared at the beginning of the school year, during employee orientation, staff and faculty meetings and regularly reiterated through evidenced based prevention strategies, including interactive in-person trainings, social marketing campaigns, and conversations about creating safe and respectful communities.

These prevention efforts must provide employees and students with the knowledge they need to identify sexual and intimate partner violence, and harassment and respond in a manner that makes sense for their position in the organization (e.g., student, staff, and administrator). An evidence based bystander intervention training can help students and employees learn and practice ways to directly and subtly intervene when they witness sexual and intimate partner violence, and harassment. Further, effective bystander training teaches participants how they can support victims after the violence. A common theme in so many victim disclosures and reports is self-blame. A friend who witnesses this behavior could say to the victim, “I can’t believe this just happened, it is not your fault, let’s go and speak to an adult.” Research on victim disclosure and response illustrates that this type of empathic response has positive implications for how victims move forward. Our research assessing the effectiveness of campus sexual assault prevention underscores the importance of target audience insight and the program delivery mechanism. This type of thoughtful, comprehensive and strategic prevention will help educational institutions ensure that the resources they spend will make important cultural change.