KU student group pushing for stronger sexual assault training

An Al Jazeera America video that featured Kansas University students discussing their drunken sexual encounters threw light on a local version of a common college problem: the dangerous mix of alcohol, sex, ignorance and the social lives of college students.

Partly as a response, some KU students are pushing for beefed-up sexual assault and consent training for students, with the goal of both preventing sexual assault and making KU a model for other universities.

In the October video, since removed from Al Jazeera America’s website, three male KU students discussed sexual encounters with women while drunk, and while their partners were drunk, as well as fears of being accused of rape.

The men’s statements prompted condemnation by KU’s Student Senate and university administrators, who said that the students’ behavior represented a threat to the campus and reflected a wider problem on college campuses. The video also raised concerns that some men and women on campus might have a murky understanding of sexual consent, especially when alcohol becomes part of the mix.

Different shades of mandatory

Sexual harassment training, including extensive information about sexual assault and sexual consent, is said to be mandatory for KU students. However, students face no consequences for shirking it. In contrast, if students fail to take a computerized alcohol training, the university prevents them from enrolling.

Some students are working to change that. KU Student Body Vice President Emma Halling sits on a committee working with KU’s Institutional Opportunity and Access office on issues related to Title IX, a federal law designed to enhance gender equality in higher education. Halling and others want the “mandatory” moniker to come with a stick, such as an enrollment hold, that would force more students to go through training. Ultimately, Halling said she would like to see KU “step above compliance and towards becoming a premier programming university” that others look to for modeling sexual assault training.

Jane McQueeny, executive director of Institutional Opportunity and Access, which manages the program, said 86 percent of students at KU completed the training in 2012, the program’s first year. That number slid to just over 57 percent of students this year. McQueeny said her office has worked hard on the training. “I think it’s really engaging, she said, but she acknowledges “I’m not the demographic.”

The office is currently discussing with KU administration the possibility of adding an enforcement mechanism, McQueeny said.

Amanda Schulze, another committee member and president of KU’s Commission on the Status of Women, describes the training program as “basically just a white PowerPoint.” She, too, thinks students should have their enrollment dependent on going through training. “I think what we see is a lack of education,” she said.

Teaching consent

The training consists mostly of voiceovers and informational slides displaying facts, statistics and hypothetical scenarios. The slides cover a range of issues related to sexual assault and harassment: sexual violence, dating violence, stalking, consent, incapacity and prevention.

Among the topics is consent as it pertains to intoxication. The basic premise in the tutorial, that those incapacitated by alcohol cannot give consent, might seem like common sense. Yet alcohol plays a predominate role in rape and sexual assault. At least, half of all sexual assaults by an acquaintance involve alcohol consumption by the victim, perpetrator, or both, according to the National Resource Center on Violence Against Women.

And alcohol is very much a part of the campus social life. Kathy Rose-Mockry, director of KU’s Emily Taylor Center for Women and Gender Equity, which also provides sexual assault education, said college students “are away from home for the first time … they’re living in an organization away from their family, making different choices, and often times students meet in bars and places with alcohol.”

To help improve current training, Halling she would like to see a social component and “an element of peer accountability.” That might include groups that reach out to campus to teach about sexual assault intervention and bystander training. Schulze said she thinks bringing in sexual assault survivors to talk with students about their experience could help spark deeper discussion. “It’s conversation and talking about it that’s going to get us somewhere,” she said.

But, as McQueeny points out, training itself has its limits. “Here’s kind of the dilemma in life: We can design great training and reach lots of students,” she said. “We can’t make them embrace it.”