Can UK learn from US on tackling sexual assault on campus?

A lawyer and a clinical psychologist in the US explain how America’s universities are becoming more ‘trauma-informed’

August 11, 2016
Stanford University students in solidarity for Brock Turner rape victim
Source: Getty
Outraged: many were angered by the short sentence for a Stanford student who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman. Universities want to stop such crimes on campus

California judge Aaron Persky has been the subject of international furore since he sentenced Stanford University student Brock Turner to just six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.

The latest development this month is a petition calling for Mr Persky's impeachment, which has so far received more than 1 million signatures.

The case is notable because of the sentence imposed, which has been widely viewed as very lenient, particularly when compared with other similar trials, but such incidents on university campuses are not uncommon. In fact, reports of sexual violence at US universities have increased in recent years.

While the overall number of crimes reported by post-secondary institutions in the US decreased by 34 per cent between 2001 and 2013, the number of reported forcible sex crimes on campus increased by 126 per cent during this period – from 2,200 to 5,000 – according to figures from the US’ National Center for Education Statistics that were published in May.

Jeffrey Nolan, an attorney at US law firm Dinse Knapp McAndrew, which specialises in legal issues affecting colleges and universities and campus safety, said that this increase is likely to be a result of universities better educating students about what constitutes sexual violence and better publicising of how students can report such incidents.

Another reason, he said, is that institutions are changing the way that they deal with these reports, with a gradual shift away from a process where “parties have to engage in a face-to-face conversation with a hearing panel to talk about very personal issues” to a procedure where “fact gathering is done one-on-one with an investigator without the other party present”. The latter results in a report that will recommend whether the investigator thinks that university policies have been violated or not, he said.

“Once people who seek help at the reporting stage understand that they’re not going to have to do something that looks more like what they imagine a criminal trial would look like, they’re more willing to go ahead and participate in the process,” he said.

“I’ve talked with folks who’ve implemented more investigation-based models as opposed to hearing-based models and they’ve seen a pretty dramatic increase in the number of reports that have been made.”

But Mr Nolan said that the hearing-based approach can work well as long as the panellists – who are drawn from the university’s community – are well trained in issues relating to sexual assault, stalking and dating violence; available to conduct the hearing; and understand how to appropriately ask questions.

And while he noted that some universities feel that the investigation-based model is “more accurate, less stressful for parties and more fair”, they can take a long time.

In 2014, Mr Nolan worked with a team assembled by the National Center for Campus Public Safety to develop the curriculum for a sexual assault investigation and adjudication training programme for campus officials. The programme was developed after the White House tasked the centre with addressing the issue of sexual assault, and it is now being rolled out across the country.

The UK government has also stepped up its efforts in this area recently; last year it asked Universities UK to set up and lead a task force to develop a code of practice to help tackle violence against women on campuses. UUK said that it expects to release a report on this in October.

UK universities have fewer legal requirements in this area than their US counterparts but it is thought that there could be a tightening of regulations following UUK's review.

Mr Nolan said that since 2011 the US government’s Department of Education has strengthened guidance around how universities should respond to reports of sexual violence. While this guidance is “not legally binding” he said that it has “great influence on institutions” as they are reliant on the department for participating in federal financial aid programmes.

He added that he would like to see more institutions integrate “threat assessment” into their strategies to determine whether “somebody poses a risk of targeted violence towards others”.

Christine Garcia, clinical director of the University of California, San Francisco’s (UCSF) Young Adult and Family Center and an expert at the National Center for Campus Public Safety, said that universities are becoming much more “trauma-informed” in how they deal with reports of sexual assault but there is still much work to be done to improve further.

She describes “trauma-informed” approaches as ones that take into account the way that a victim’s brain and body changes after an attack so investigative strategies can be altered in order to get accurate information without retraumatising the person.

She said that this can involve focusing on sensory details rather than a timeline of events, investigators acting in a non-threatening way, and being upfront about the steps involved in the process.

“An investigator might say: ‘Tell me what happened in a linear fashion. You went out at such and such a time, and then what happened?’” she said.

“Someone who has been through a traumatic event such as sexual assault doesn’t have that linear memory…The part of the brain that does the linear recall is kind of offline when a traumatic event is happening.”

Dr Garcia added that universities can best prevent such incidents by educating their students and staff about sexual violence, healthy relationships and consent, although she admitted that this training needs to begin at primary school and continue throughout higher education.

She said that UCSF has recently launched an interactive website that features online courses on sexual health, positive relationships and sexual violence, which is free to access for students across the world.

Meanwhile Princeton University has a one-week course for first-year students that involves them watching a play and then discussing in groups how they would respond to various scenarios, including those involving sexual assault, Dr Garcia said.

“There needs to be continuous education on this,” she added.

“The science of sexual trauma and trauma in general is constantly evolving. As science evolves, universities need to be informed more as to how to be the most supportive in order to facilitate victims’ ability to heal and to be the best...that they can be during their time at university.”


Print headline: New thinking on how to halt sexual violence

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

A shocking film about the extent of sexual assault at US colleges has just toured UK universities. It is high time we took this problem seriously in Britain, says Nicole Westmarland, while US academic Jennifer Doyle warns that a paranoid overreaction poisons campus culture

19 November