College campuses had long been thought to be safe from crimes such as sexual assault and relationship violence. Such interpersonal violence simply was not on the radar of college administrators and criminal justice personnel because of underreporting to police and the private nature of these crimes. However, the myth of the “university as safe haven” quickly changed as the rape and domestic violence awareness movements gained momentum on college campuses in the 1970s and 1980s. Research, too, has added to the increased awareness of the prevalence of this violence. As research methods have become both more sophisticated and more sensitive, researchers have confirmed what advocacy groups suspected: There is a high prevalence of sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking on campus.
The response to this violence has been witnessed at many levels. First, there has been a general increase in awareness of how a campus environment can complicate the experience of interpersonal violence. Second, the federal government has instituted grant programs aimed at the reduction of violence on campus, and has also passed laws requiring the public disclosure of crimes on campus. Third, some universities have adopted policies, protocols, and programming with the goals of discouraging campus violence and appropriately dealing with it when it does occur.
The Campus Environment And Interpersonal Violence
University students who are victims of interpersonal violence have the same responses as nonstudents who are victimized: They feel confused, hurt, and angry. They fear their perpetrator and have trouble trusting others. They can suffer from nightmares, insomnia, an inability to concentrate, and posttraumatic stress disorder. They sometimes blame themselves. They experience physical or emotional repercussions that can include sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, depression, and difficulty having a “normal” sex life or intimate relationship. For college students, the effects of violence may cause them to be unable to study, fall behind in or fail courses, or even drop out of school.
These reactions to interpersonal violence are common, but their severity and how they combine to affect each individual are different from person to person. On a college campus, there exist multiple unique variables that can affect a victim’s response, including a shared social group, shared living quarters, financial dependence on parents, the pervasive presence of alcohol, and institutional factors.
Shared Social Group
An overwhelming majority of sexual assaults, and of course, all dating and relationship violence, occur between two people who know each other. In a campus environment, the victim and perpetrator often will share the same group of friends. Additionally, many students on campus who experience interpersonal violence share a cocurricular activity in a student group (such as band, dance, athletics, or a Pan-Hellenic group) with their perpetrator. This common network of friends and support people complicates a victim’s decision whether to report the crime to police or even to tell any of her or his friends about the experience. Victims fear that they will not be believed and that they will be “dropped” by their group of friends if they accuse someone within that group of hurting them. Attending college away from their hometown and traditional support network can exacerbate this problem even further.
If they previously had a close relationship with the perpetrator, victims are often concerned that they will “ruin the perpetrator’s life” if they tell anyone, especially the police. Many victims do not want to force their friends to take sides, and they fear that this is what would happen if their experience became public. When victims share a cocurricular activity with their perpetrator they are often forced to face that perpetrator every day as they pursue their interest in that group or activity. This can impact a victim’s ability to classify her or his experience as “violence,” because the offensive act was committed by someone that not only the victim but also many of her or his friends have interactions with on a regular basis. A shared social group is one of the many reasons why victims of interpersonal violence on campus have an astonishingly low rate of reporting the crimes against them to the police.
Shared Living Quarters
Some victims of interpersonal violence on campus share a residence hall or other living quarters with their perpetrator. This can increase their danger, fear, and confusion about the violence. If the student is a victim of relationship violence, all of the dangers associated with cohabiting with the abuser apply. More unique to colleges is the likelihood that victims of sexual assault will share living space with their perpetrator. In both cases, the victim may have concerns about seeing the perpetrator in the dining hall, the stairway, or the lounge area. Shared living quarters can increase a victim’s feeling of vulnerability and can have real implications for the safety of victims of campus violence.
Financial Dependence On Parents
Most, though certainly not all, undergraduate students are financially dependent on their parents. For many students, this includes subscribing to their parents’ health insurance. If students need to access medical care due to a sexual assault or injury resulting from a violent relationship, they may have concerns about a parent finding out about what happened. They may view their victimization as a failure on their own part and be concerned that they may anger, disappoint, or be blamed by their parents. For this reason, some victims of interpersonal violence on campus do not seek medical attention nor, for cases of sexual assault, do they seek to have an evidentiary exam performed. Again, the unique circumstances of campus violence negatively affect the likelihood of reporting and prosecution of interpersonal violence.
The Pervasive Presence Of Alcohol
Excessive alcohol consumption is generally considered a risk factor for perpetrating sexual assault and relationship violence. It can also be a risk factor for becoming a victim of sexual assault. Alcohol is often used by perpetrators to (a) render their victims more vulnerable through intoxication and (b) excuse their own behavior. Although many college students do not drink and, of those who do, most do not abuse alcohol, it remains true that alcohol is a complicating factor in a significant portion of campus violence.
Universities have an interest in appearing to be safe. They must recruit students, please parents, and win donations. However, the reality of campus violence can lead potential stakeholders to question the safety of the campus. Some universities unintentionally discourage reporting and help-seeking by victims. For example, they may distribute materials about self-defense and other risk-reduction measures without balancing them with a message to perpetrators regarding their sole responsibility for committing the crime. Such materials can influence victims to blame themselves because they did not stop the crime from happening, and victims who blame themselves are much less likely to make a report. In an effort to show a concern for safety, some universities have also invested in “blue lights” and safety call boxes, which does not address the fact that most sexual assaults occur in the home of either the victim or perpetrator.
There have been a number of federal laws enacted in the past 20 years that impact campus crime. In 1990, Congress passed the Student Right to Know and Campus Security Act, which requires schools to disclose information about crime on and around campus on an annual basis. This act was amended and renamed the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act in 1998. The impetus for this change was the 1986 rape and murder of Lehigh University student Jeanne Clery, and the law is commonly referred to as “The Clery Act.”
The Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights was adopted in 1992. This law requires that universities inform victims of counseling resources and disciplinary and criminal justice options. In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act mandated the study of campus victimization and the Bureau of Justice Statistics added new questions about student victimization to the National Crime Victimization Survey. The Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act, which requires the collection and disclosure of information about students and employees who are registered sex offenders, was passed in 2002. Finally, although Title IX is most often regarded as the law that mandates equal access to participation in athletics for girls and women, its equal protection clause also includes the right to pursue education without harassment (including assault) based on gender.
In 1999, the Office on Violence Against Women awarded the first of its Grants to Reduce Violence Against Women on Campus. This program has granted up to $10 million each year to various universities across the country to partner with community victim assistance and criminal justice agencies in an effort to prevent and respond to violence on and around campus.
University Policy, Protocol, And Programming
Many universities have responded to the growing awareness of interpersonal violence on campus by adopting policies, protocols, and programming aimed at reducing these crimes. Various universities have adopted specific policies against sexual assault, relationship violence, and/or stalking. Some have partnered with local victim assistance and criminal justice agencies to coordinate a response to campus violence, while other, usually larger universities, have developed their own centers or departments to respond to these crimes. Universities have their own disciplinary process that can be used to hold perpetrators accountable. Adjudication at the university level is separate from any pursuit of criminal charges.
Some universities have also developed educational programs, which are often facilitated by students for students. The goals of this peer-led model often include raising awareness about sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking; educating students about the definitions of these crimes and the university’s policies and protocols regarding these crimes; and suggesting how to deal with a friend who may disclose that she or he has experienced this type of crime. A handful of schools also pursue a model wherein the program facilitators seek to reduce the likelihood that a potential perpetrator might commit such a crime. This model focuses on the cultural climate that tolerates interpersonal violence and calls for men and women to work together to challenge this culture.
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