University of Washington acts to combat sexual assaults on campus

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In an effort to prevent more sexual assaults, a University of Washington task force is taking steps to make it easier for students to report a rape and is recommending training to encourage students to look out for one another in social situations.

The recommendations, which call for a cultural shift in the way sexual assaults are perceived and handled, come as the Obama administration and the U.S. Department of Education are calling for a heightened focus on preventing rapes on campuses across the nation.

A recent series of highly publicized rapes on college campuses has propelled the issue into the national spotlight.

“Many of us are saying, ‘It’s about time,’ ” said Ellen Taylor, assistant vice president for student life and director of the UW Counseling Center.

UW President Michael Young convened the task force a year ago, before campus assaults were drawing much attention. The task force’s recommendations came out in October, and some are already being implemented. Others are being worked on or are awaiting funding.

Many dovetail recommendations made by a White House task force that studied ways to prevent sexual assault.

“We’re coming out early, and we can be positioning ourselves as leaders,” said Kiana Scott, the student representative on the UW Board of Regents, the university’s governing body.

The task force outlined 18 actions for changing the campus culture and responding more effectively to assaults on campus.

Taylor said many of the recommendations are driven by research.

There’s strong evidence, she said, that sexual assaults can be prevented if students are trained to intervene when they spot a situation in which one student could take advantage of another. During a party, for example, students can intervene when a friend is being harassed or coerced.

“We have a tendency to hang back,” Taylor said. “We want to create a culture where one student is saying to another, ‘Dude, this is not OK.’ ”

Taylor said it’s widely believed that sexual assaults are vastly underreported — not just on university campuses, but everywhere. A White House task force that also studied the issue said 1 in 5 female students has been assaulted, but just 12 percent of such attacks get reported.

In a UW survey of more than 1,000 undergraduates conducted three years ago, 61 percent of respondents said sexual abuse between college students was a problem. Twelve percent of women who responded, and 1 percent of men, said they had been in a sexually abusive relationship with a dating partner since coming to the UW.

Students also reported sexual touching without consent, stalking, sexual coercion and unwanted sex.

Some survey respondents said they were dissatisfied with the school’s efforts to help, and said student resources should be advertised more heavily or expanded to reach more students.

The survey was conducted for the UW’s Sexual Assault & Relationship Violence program, a university program that helps support students when they report a sexual assault to police, and which also offers education and prevention training. The survey is being repeated again this spring.

Taylor said the task force also wants to teach students how to respond when a friend confides that he or she has been assaulted, because most abuse victims turn first to friends for support.

Raising awareness of sexual assaults and encouraging more students to report them is almost sure to cause an uptick in reports of the crimes.

“As awareness goes up, reporting also goes up,” said Provost Ana Mari Cauce during a meeting of the UW Regents on Thursday. “Keep that in mind.”

For that reason, Taylor said, the reported numbers of sexual assaults often don’t tell the full story. For example, a school with a high number of assaults may be doing a better job of making students feel safe about reporting the crime than a school that has low numbers.

Taylor said the UW is planning to develop a simple website to help guide students in assault cases. Currently, that information is scattered across different university Web pages.

At the national level, the Obama administration is expected to ask Congress to pass measures that would require universities to more aggressively combat sexual assaults on campus and levy penalties if they fail to do so.

And last week, the U.S. Department of Education released a list of 55 universities that are being investigated for their handling of sexual-abuse complaints. The list included Washington State University, although UW officials took pains to note that institutions on the list haven’t necessarily done anything wrong.

Taylor, who has worked in the field for 25 years, said she’s pleased that so much attention is being focused on the problem.

“The national conversation and attention on this is more heightened than I have seen it at any time in my professional career,” she said.

Katherine Long can be reached at 206-464-2219, klong@seattletimes.com or on Twitter.

Comments

PearlY 3 months, 3 weeks ago

Sexual assaults are crimes. They should be reported to the police and handled by the criminal justice system. It is both a wasteful expenditure of taxpayer funds and potentially damaging to the ultimate prosecution of the criminal to have universities and colleges set up parallel systems for handling these crimes. So far, the trend seems to be that these parallel systems are set up more as kangaroo courts, with the accused denied any due process.

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NewInWW 3 months, 3 weeks ago

The article talked a lot about prevention, not investigation or prosecution. I assume you're not opposed to preventing sexual assaults.

As for the parallel systems - the standard of proof in a criminal case is beyond a reasonable doubt. I would think that the universities can and should apply a lower standard to expel students who might not be convicted in a court of law.

And if by "kangaroo court" you mean that those who might not be convicted in a court of law are nonetheless "convicted" by the parallel system, see above re burden of proof.

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PearlY 3 months, 3 weeks ago

NewInWW, I think it would be great if colleges and universities worked on preventing sexual assaults, but we gave up on that when we decided it was not a college's business to interfere too much in students' choices about, for instance, drinking. And I'm aware of the differences between standards of proof, and the standard of preponderance of the evidence is fine with me as a basis for expulsion if that's the standard that applies to other deprivations of rights at the institution (firing staff, for example) - IF other rules of evidence also apply. I invite you to read the accounts of proceedings that forbid students from being represented by attorneys, forbid discovery of the accusations against them, forbid cross-examination - in other words, they are kangaroo courts.

But the fact remains, sexual assault is a CRIME. These parallel systems are not fair to the accused, nor are they fair to the victims. Expulsion is no substitute for prosecution and when colleges set themselves up to pretend to deal with the problem, that's what it ends up being. These cases should go to the police and the courts. There's a far better chance they will know how to investigate and how to prosecute these crimes.

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NewInWW 3 months, 3 weeks ago

As usual, lots of words, not much content.

Regardless whether or what rules of evidence apply to campus hearings, colleges and universities should be free to decide who should be welcomed on campus.

Or do you want to government to say otherwise?

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PearlY 3 months, 3 weeks ago

The University of Washington IS government. And besides, government IS saying otherwise. Or did you miss the part in the article about the federal government's role in this, backed by their power to withdraw federal funds.

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barracuda 3 months, 3 weeks ago

Most all (WSU included) have Campus Police Departments. They have the same powers that all other Wa. St. Police departments have. I am sure that will be including them in this study.

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