With survey data, administrators assess sexual assault at the University

Thursday, October 1, 2015 - 9:49pm

University President Mark Schlissel and his administration have spent the last academic year working to roll out new policy initiatives regarding several campus issues — most notably, athletics, diversity, sexual assault, alcohol abuse and Greek life. The Michigan Daily concludes this week’s “Campus Context” series by delving into the chain of events that has led to a closer examination of the University’s approach toward sexual assault on campus.

The overview: Though discussion of sexual assault on college campuses has generated discussion in the past, the case of former football kicker Brendan Gibbons brought the issue into the increased public focus. In January 2014, the Daily reported that Gibbons had been permanently separated from the University for violating the school’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy — four years after the case had been reported.

The delay brought into question the efficacy of the University’s adjudication policies. Months later, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into the University and more than 100 other schools’ handling of sexual assault cases.

Since then, the University has been working to improve its prevention programs and make its policies more effective and transparent.

The changes: Some changes are more visible than others. In 2013, the University updated its sexual misconduct policy to meet new standards recommended by the U.S. Department of Education. The updated policy decreased the burden of proof applied in sexual misconduct cases. Under the policy, decisions require a “preponderance of evidence,” which means an incident is more likely to have occurred than not. The University took part in two sexual assault surveys under Schlissel’s aegis — one internal survey released to roughly 3,000 randomly selected students on campus, and one survey released through the American Association of University to all students on 28 college campuses.

The results of each survey revealed both fairly high rates of sexual assault and high rates of disillusionment with the efficacy of the adjudication process. The University’s internal survey also revealed that certain groups are at higher risk for sexual assault; for example, students in Greek life are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault than students not in Greek life.

With these numbers in hand, the University is developing a number of programs to target at-risk groups and expand their prevention programming for the entire student body.

The context: In his first year, Schlissel and the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center worked to raise awareness of sexual assault through the "I Will" campaign and through both surveys, seeking data on campus climate surrounding sexual misconduct.

In October 2014, students took it upon themselves to bring the issue to his attention. Students held a protest on campus, before issuing seven demands for the administration related to addressing sexual misconduct.  

“This protest seeks to actively disrupt the University of Michigan’s complacency in handling issues of sexual assault on this campus,” an anonymous group of survivors and allies stated in a viewpoint for the Daily. “To the administration: Students are taking action because it is time our voices are heard.”

However, Schlissel said he was frustrated by the way the students framed the conversation.

“The one thing I will object to, which drives me a little nutty, is framing things as demands,” Schlissel told the Daily. “I think that makes it really difficult to have discussions.”

At the time, Schlissel said he was concerned that many of the demands made by the student protesters were actually covered by policies and procedures already in place, illustrating a lack of awareness among the student body at large.

***

The University administration plays a large role in promoting sexual assault prevention — providing resources during New Student Orientation and in residence halls such as Relationship Remix, Change it Up! and an orientation skit performed by the Educational Theatre Company. However, there’s some disagreement about the extent to which these programs are successfully contributing shifting the culture around sexual assault on campus.

Change it Up!, a bystander intervention program mandatory for freshmen during their first months at school, has recently expanded to cater to students of all years at the University. The program, which underwent its pilot year during Schlissel’s first year, prominently features sketches from the ETC to illustrate methods for bystander intervention.

ETC Director Callie McKee says the theater company partners with Change it Up! to teach students the importance of bystander intervention when dealing with difficult situations, as well as dispel misinformation on sexual assault.

“With this sketch, we seek to send a message that sexual assault is a community issue — that it is everyone's responsibility to make sure everyone can feel safe and respected,” McKee said.

According to research conducted at the University of New Hampshire, one of the schools tapped by Vice President Joe Biden to aid the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, freshmen learn University policies and practices best when given activities to review and think critically about the material they learn.

“It may not be enough to read students the campus policies in a class OR ask them to watch a video on their own time,” the report concluded. “Rather, there may need to be an activity following the reading so that students can have help processing the information in a way that will give them more in-depth understanding of the policy.”

However, McKee says the play, which is developed in part through the input of students, is meant to teach students about a variety of topics, such as mental health, alcohol and community living.

Pre- and post-survey data from the first iteration of Change it Up! show that the program has had an overall positive effect on its students.

While 15.76 percent of students said they “strongly agreed” it was their business to intervene in harmful situations before the program, 24.18 percent said they felt that way afterward. Overall, the total percentage of students who answered with “agree” or “strongly agree” when asked if it was their business to intervene was 93.89 percent by the workshop’s end.

Similarly, while 14.72 percent of students said they “strongly agreed” that they have confidence in their ability to intervene in harmful situations before completing the program, 24.49 percent said they felt that way afterward. Overall, the total percentage of students who felt confident enough in their intervention abilities to answer with “agree” or above was 93.41 percent by the workshop’s end.

Business sophomore Maria Malinowski, who saw the ETC show last fall, pointed to Relationship Remix as a better educational means of preventing sexual assault though she said she already knew much of the information provided.

“In the Relationship Remix presentation, we spent a significant amount of time learning about how to properly put on a condom,” she said. “While I think it’s important information, I feel that many students have already had this lesson in high school health classes and don’t need to spend 15 minutes reviewing how to do so.”

LSA sophomore Rohin Patel said he also learned more from residence hall workshops like Relationship Remix and Change it Up! due to the ability to discuss the topics in detail with small groups.

“I learned a good amount about sexual assault freshman year, but I feel that it wasn’t enough,” Patel said. “During orientation there are a lot of things students need to worry about, so oftentimes people can overlook this very important topic.”

***

Another educational method the University uses to educate students is AlcoholEdu, an online quiz on alcohol abuse. Before arriving to campus, students are asked to take an online alcohol training program that indirectly addresses sexual assault prevention. According to Rider-Milkovich, this program has a 99-percent participation rate.

However, some students still were not aware of the campus resources for survivors of sexual assault. Malinowski said she recalled the alcohol awareness quiz touching on sexual assault, though she did not learn about SAPAC or the University’s sexual assault policy.

“If those modules we had to complete mentioned SAPAC or other resources, I don’t remember them having a strong emphasis on them,” she said.

LSA sophomore Megan Mackenzie also said she was not aware of any University resources for sexual assault prevention before coming to campus, only Blue Light Emergency Phones around campus. During her freshman year, she said, she learned the most from the ETC play in regard to sexual assault prevention, but found Change it Up! "unnecessary."

“At the time, I was 18 years old and I felt that if we had to be reinforced this common knowledge at the University level, then something was very wrong,” Mackenzie said.

As far as learning about the SAPAC policy on sexual assault, Patel and Malinowski both said they learned about it through non-administrative ways — Patel through running for CSG representative position and Malinowski through a women's studies class. Malinowski said SAPAC representatives came to talk to her class about resources and the importance of consent, and said she wishes she received a similar presentation during orientation.

“Although we talked about SAPAC in our dorm presentation, people do skip those and would miss this information,” she said. “I feel like if the University stressed this issue more during orientation, where people generally don’t skip events they’re supposed to attend or are significantly less likely to skip, more students would be aware of these resources.”

***

To gather data on the subject, Schlissel issued a survey last winter to gauge campus climate in the beginning his second semester as University president.

“Learning about the experiences of students and the degree to which students feel safe and respected will help us better understand how we can more effectively address and prevent sexual misconduct,” Schlissel wrote in a January 2015 e-mail sent to the student body to introduce the survey.

Schlissel said a campus-specific survey would give the University better data to use in creating programs and interventions to reduce sexual violence on campus.

“Learning about the experiences of students and the degree to which students feel safe and respected will help us better understand how we can more effectively address and prevent sexual misconduct,” Schlissel wrote in the e-mail.

Schlissel said in a September interview with the Daily that the survey results, released in June, were disheartening. The results showed 11 percent of students reported experiencing some form of unwanted sexual behavior in the past year, and 12 percent of undergraduate females reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual penetration — yet 89 percent of all students reported feeling relatively safe from sexual misconduct on campus.

“Anything that involves 20 or 30 percent of a population, that’s not a rare event — this is everyday life, this is culture,” Schlissel told the Daily.

Furthermore, the survey found though nearly 86 percent of all students know the University has a Student Sexual Misconduct Policy, only 55 percent of students reported receiving training or attending programs on sexual assault prevention and reporting.

A separate survey in which the University participated, administered by the Association of American Universities in March, showed of University students who said they experienced nonconsensual penetration involving physical force, 76.8 percent did not report the crime. Many who did not report said they did so because they did not consider it serious enough or because they thought nothing would be done about it.

About 63 percent of students did not report their experience of unwanted sexual penetration because they believed “it would not be taken seriously by campus officials.”

Schlissel and other administrators have stressed their continued dedication to preventing sexual misconduct on campus, but they have acknowledged that some students may be unaware or feel skeptical of these efforts.

“We take every report of potential assault or misconduct of any kind very seriously,” Schlissel said. “So the obvious problem is that we are not getting that message across in a way that the students either hear or believe.”

Moving forward: So far, Schlissel has emphasized data collection as a means for approaching sexual assault at the University. And with the survey results in, it appears that the University has room to improve.

In an interview with the Daily following the AAU survey results’ release, Rider-Milkovich said teachings from programs like Relationship Remix seem to “wear off over time.” Subsequently, the University is working to make assault prevention a more continuous and visible topic of discussion on campus.

For example, SAPAC has been working with Recreational Sports to create a poster campaign to appear in facilities across campus. These posters will “reinforce the fundamentals of respect,” including consent.

“We want to be reinforcing that healthy relationships are a part of an overall wellness,” Rider-Milkovich said. “So those kinds of messaging, specific to the ways that students engage in sports on our campus ... is an example of those targeted kinds of education efforts that need to complement the big-scale work that we’re doing. And all of that has to happen on many different levels.”

In an e-mail to the student body Thursday, E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, invited students to provide feedback regarding the University’s sexual misconduct policy through a variety of student-led focus groups.

These “roundtables” will be hosted by Central Student Government, LGBTQ students via the Spectrum Center, Culture Shift, the Trotter Multicultural Center and the Office of Greek Life.

“In addition to these in-person opportunities to ask questions and offer your perspectives, all University of Michigan students, staff, and faculty are invited to provide written feedback on the Policy revision draft” through an online feedback survey, the e-mail said.

Overall, administrators have made it clear that sexual assault is not an issue unique to the University — and struggling to find successful ways to mitigate the problem is not an challenge unique to the University either.