Study from KU researchers identifies barriers and facilitators to addressing sexual violence on university campuses

photo by: Journal-World/File

In this Journal-World file photo, a University of Kansas student straightens some of the 3,067 flags in front of Watson Library representing the statistically one in four women who will be sexually assaulted during their time at KU on Wednesday, April 6, 2016. The flag display is in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Story updated at 4:52 p.m. Tuesday:

A three-year study by researchers at the University of Kansas has found that the best way for higher education institutions to address sexual assault on their campuses is to commission separate task forces dedicated to prevention efforts and how the school responds to reports of sexual violence.

But most colleges and universities face barriers to forming those task forces, the study found. Those barriers include a lack of capacity to address the issues, a lack of knowledge of sexual violence, limited student engagement, and bureaucratic structures that prevent effective task forces from forming.

“To address the barrier of capacity, lack of knowledge, and bureaucratic structures, administrators must invest in changing the status quo,” the study, authored by four KU researchers, says. “They must financially prioritize and institutionalize sexual assault prevention in individual staff workloads and unit operations.”

The study, commissioned in 2016 as part of the Heartland Sexual Assault Policies and Prevention Project through the federal Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health, was published in late May. Researchers conducted the study through interviews with stakeholders at seven colleges and universities in the Midwest.

Its publishing came three months after KU Chancellor Douglas Girod denied a request from leaders of KU’s student government to reinstate a task force dedicated to addressing sexual misconduct.

“Please know I wholeheartedly share your interest in this topic and your concern for students’ wellbeing,” Girod told student leaders in February. “That said, I do not agree that the creation of another task force is necessary at this time.”

KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson didn’t directly address a question from the Journal-World on whether Girod would reconsider the request in light of the study.

“These findings from our KU scholars and their colleagues at seven other universities — just published last week — are part of the body of research on the topic that the university considers in our continued work against sexual assault,” she said in an email.

Though the study identified several barriers facing universities in forming comprehensive sexual assault policies, it also found facilitators to sound policymaking, as well. Those include strong interpersonal relations between university leadership, a positive campus culture surrounding the elimination of sexual misconduct, and preexisting programming to educate members of the university community.

It is also important, the study found, for universities to financially support increased efforts to address sexual misconduct on campus. Though it may be challenging given the COVID-19 pandemic’s depletion of university resources, there are ways to be innovative, the study says.

For starters, universities can prioritize communitywide messaging through partnerships with local organizations dedicated to education on sexual violence. This way the burden is not only on university staff who are already overworked, the study found.

“This would again require postsecondary institutions to engage prevention at the community-level and acknowledge that this approach is valid and positive, which connects to the barrier posed by lack of knowledge about prevention,” the study says.

Most importantly, though, is university leaders have to take a proactive approach and show they care about both the prevention of, and response to, sexual violence.

“If leadership does not prioritize and support sexual assault prevention, then there’s certainly no reason why students should care. A sense of community on campus was also critical,” the study’s principal author, Alesha Doan, said in a KU news release. “Students were much more likely to engage in prevention efforts on campuses that had a strong shared sense of community.”

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