Student researcher explores differences among university sexual assault policies

Sunday, October 21, 2018 - 3:01pm

LSA senior Kia Schwert was captivated by the research opportunities at the University when she attended the Michigan Community College Summer Research Fellowship as a fellow in 2017, inspiring her to transfer to the University to study sociology and women’s studies. She got involved as a research assistant in Profs. Elizabeth Armstrong and Sandra Levitsky’s Title IX lab in the Sociology Department, which involved content analysis of 380 higher level education institutes to see how their administrations respond to sexual violence on their campuses.

Schwert said the research has shown her how the smaller differences between Title IX procedures can have large impacts. 

“I consider it a privilege that I’ve worked on a couple different surveys and have seen more of the nuances or more facets of the issues,” Schwert said. “This past year we were looking at the reporting procedures and were analyzing the security reports of (an institute’s) website and looking for the adjudication process.”

Schwert and the sociology research team were using all of the possible information found on the University safety and sexual assault procedures website to see what it would be like for a survivor to come forward and navigate the reporting process. Researchers found differences in what procedures schools used and the resources they provided, even though laws dictate specific services schools must have. Schwert and her research partner wanted to dig deeper into the topic by working to analyze the policy differences in religious and non-religious institutions.

“We picked this area because in our coding experience, we noticed a lot of differences between religious and non-religious schools and a lot of commonalities among language and trends used in religious schools and non-religious schools, specifically in the area of amnesty,” Schwert said.

Schwert analyzed the annual security reports of 100 different religious and non-religious institutions. According to the Clery Act, each school must publish a public safety manual illustrating crime statistics and security information. According to Schwert, the research showed many religious schools lack a section devoted to the amnesty of survivors.

“I find that extremely problematic and when we talk about reporting, how do we incentivize reporting?” Schwert said. “I think we need to stop questioning why survivors and people aren’t coming forward and start dealing with how (institutions) are disparaging coming forward that would decentivize or discourage reporting acutely.”

Schwert said these disparities might be a result of how religious universities conceptualize the issue of sexual assault and thus how they have targeted prevention programs similar to the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center and the Spectrum Center.

Schwert’s results showed little overlap between the populations to which programs of religious and non-religious target their programs on campus. Her data show religious institutions would target their sexual violence programs toward women and first-year students, whereas non-religious schools target athletes, men and Greek life organizations. Schwert said the study does not explain why this might be but she plans on continuing this research with an honors thesis using case studies, administration surveys and interviews of each school type.

Schwert said the results could illustrate the dominant narratives surrounding the conversation about sexual assault that further the issue. She thinks the research can show the ideology of placing the burden on the victim and wants to explore this double standard that exists.

“A lot of prevention programs are targeted toward women because ‘as a woman you are weaker and more likely to be assaulted,’” Schwert said. “I think it’s a real problem because it doesn’t bring in the structural issues as to why women are being targeted for a crime. We’re not talking about the reasons why or the way society is structured that makes women more vulnerable to sexual violence.”

Sandra Levitsky oversees the primary study regarding all university responses toward sexual violence, how the policies are changing and why. Levitsky said Schwert identified a great question about the impact of religious identity on sexual violence policies.

“Immersed in the data as she was, she identified a great question about how the religious identity of a school shapes how they respond to a campus sexual assault,” Levitsky wrote in an email interview. “I’ve been really impressed from the beginning with Kia’s instincts as a social scientist and her dedication to such an important issue.”

Schwert researches with her colleague Armstrong under Levitsky’s project on university responses to sexual assault as a whole. Armstrong said Schwert’s concentration on religious and non-religious institutions can help schools change their protocols to better help survivors.

“Her project ... could lead us to have a better understanding of the particular challenges facing religious colleges as they struggle to respond to sexual violence,” Armstrong wrote in an email interview.