Research to intervention: KU study on college responses to sexual assault is being put to use
photo by: Mike Yoder
When it comes to responding to reports of sexual assault, response teams on college campuses face a set of barriers that prevent their work from being as effective as similar programs run by cities and counties, according to a University of Kansas study.
But this revelation is allowing the group of KU researchers who conducted the study to help some Midwest colleges and universities do a better job by creating individualized sexual assault response protocols, said Alesha Doan, a KU associate professor and member of the research group.
“Not only are we doing research, we are also doing interventions, so it has a very tangible and immediate impact on students and well-being of our communities,” Doan said. “That has been very exciting.”
During the 2014-15 school year, former KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little convened a sexual assault task force that included Doan, KU assistant professor Juliana Carlson and KU Medical Center associate professor Natabhona Mabachi.
Through the task force, the three women started the Heartland Sexual Assault Policies and Prevention on Campuses Project, which received a 2016 grant from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to study how universities and colleges respond to sexual assault and work with them to develop better practices.
The study, which was published in the journal Trauma, Violence & Abuse, consisted of the research group reviewing previous studies of universities and community response teams, according to a KU news release. Some of the main findings of the study include an exploration of the barriers that college response teams deal with that are not present at the community level, such as the lack of defined purpose or objective and a lack of resources, Doan said.
A lack of resources means both a lack of funding and a lack of time to address the issue, Doan said.
“As funding has been cut to higher education across the board, that has meant people have been asked to take on additional roles and responsibilities,” she said.
Another barrier includes colleges not evaluating the effectiveness of their current response work, Carlson said, according to the news release.
“One of the things we’re very clear about is, instead of just trying something without evaluating it, there needs to be a measurement of its effectiveness,” Carlson said. “We didn’t see any of that in the literature.”
Additionally, a lack of research on their effectiveness means a standard protocol for other institutions to follow has not been created, Doan said.
“Because the concept and idea of developing a campus sexual assault response team is fairly new, there is not a whole lot of research out there on best practices and how to put together these teams,” she said.
At the community level, response teams are able to quickly work with several related entities — such as survivor advocate groups and district attorney offices to help victim recovery and prosecution of sexual assaults, respectively — to streamline its work, but college campus response teams are not.
“That focus is a little different than a college campus sexual assault response team because (campus teams are) more local, in that the main focus is on serving students who attend a particular university,” Doan said.
The study also found college response teams are often focused on two different missions: prevention, which includes sexual assault awareness and training efforts, and response, which includes providing treatment and support to victims. Doan said the study found these two missions need to be conducted by two different groups to allow for a more focused approach for each.
“Because of limited resources on campuses, all of those activities are folded into one group,” she said. “The scope of it is really just too large for one group to do, so we’re advocating separating out those activities.”
Along with the study, the group has been collaborating with eight colleges and universities in Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri to help them create campus sexual assault response teams and effective protocols so “victims don’t fall through the cracks,” Doan said.
“As we’re researching, we’re also essentially doing interventions for these eight campuses,” Doan said. “One big piece we are working with our campus partners is developing protocols. Protocols become very important of the function of the sexual assault response team.”
The protocols will establish specific roles for each member of the response team so everyone knows exactly what they need to do. Additionally, if anyone leaves the institution, whoever replaces them will have a protocol to follow.
Doan said there is a lot of turnover in response team personnel, and campuses have come to find that expertise and institutional knowledge on how to respond to reported cases is often lost with them.
“Protocols are one way to establish the expertise within the position and within the unit, rather than with the individual who is currently working,” she said.
Of the universities, KU and Kansas State University are the two largest, but the group is working with other, more diverse institutions — such as Crowder College, a Missouri community college; Rockhurst University, a faith-based university in Kansas City, Mo.; and Lincoln University, a historically black university in Missouri — to help them create protocols specifically made for their institutions.
“Student needs are very dependent on what kind of institution a student attends,” Doan said. “We’re recognizing there is not a one-size-fits-all model.”
The other three institution are the University of Nebraska, Kearney; Doane University in Crete, Neb.; and Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis, Mo.
The grant funding their groups work is expected to end this summer, but Doan said the group is still working on research. The group just recently submitted a study for review focused on the data it compiled from its work with the eight institutions, and Doan said she expects more studies to come in the future, too.
“We’ve been working hard on extremely rewarding work,” Doan said.
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