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Education is key to helping prevent sexual assault

It is a societal problem that robs individuals of their sense of safety. Its survivors are women and men, although at widely disparate levels. It is the focus of renewed attention at the national level. “It” is sexual assault.

The current national dialogue about sexual assault reaches to top levels, where The White House Council on Women and Girls and the Office of the Vice President issued a report in January estimating the scope of the problem as nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men having been raped in their lifetimes. One in 5 female college students have been sexually assaulted while in college, the report says.

Student advocacy and the U.S. Department of Education’s “Dear Colleague” letter of April 2011 have heightened national discussion of sexual assault. In early May, the education department’s Office for Civil Rights released a list of 55 higher education institutions under investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints. Since the initial list was released, JMU and 20 other colleges and universities have been added.

It is important to note that under its own policies and procedures, OCR investigates all allegations that fit with the framework of the statues it enforces. Accordingly, the list of 76 institutions recently released by OCR indicates only that institutions have received such complaints. It is not a judgment on the legal merits of the complaints. As the assistant secretary for civil rights has emphasized, “a college or university’s appearance on this list and being the subject of a Title IV investigation in no way indicates that the college or university is violating or has violated the law.”

“At JMU students are introduced to the sexual misconduct policy and the concept of giving and receiving sober consent during the True Life session in Summer Springboard and there is a whole session where they go through bystander intervention training during 1787 Orientation. Parts of that training are about sexual violence,” said Liz Howley, assistant director, University Health Center’s Student Wellness and Outreach and a certified health education specialist. “Haven, which is a mandatory online training that students begin before they even come to campus, covers healthy relationships, sexual assault and bystander intervention.”

Health education specialists view bystander intervention training as a promising practice. Called “Dukes Step Up” at JMU, the training was used at the university before the Campus SaVE Act mandated its implementation at the nation’s colleges and universities.

The approach educates people in “learning the skills to act when you see something,” Howley explained. “If I’m at a party and I realize that someone I came with might be too drunk to give consent, then I can intervene using the skills from Dukes Step Up.”

Key parts of the training are understanding why people choose not to intervene in situations, sexual assault ones as well as other threatening situations, and training to overcome those barriers to action.

“Bystander intervention really fits in well with our campus because we are a community that prides itself on looking out for one another. Our campus environment is important,” Howley said. “While certainly not the solution to sexual violence overall, bystander intervention training is one piece of the puzzle.”

“If we want to improve our community, it starts at the individual level, whether that means speaking out about inappropriate jokes or hurtful comments,” Howley said. “Sexual assault is a big issue, but we don’t have to be paralyzed.”

Two JMU women, graduate student Kim Johnson and May graduate Raychel Whyte, chose involvement for solutions as contributors to a White House task force to prevent sexual assault on college campuses that resulted in a report in late April. Their participation on the task force stemmed from involvement in JMU’s sexual violence education initiatives, which include customized programming for incoming and current students.

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Aug. 29, 2014








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