Task Force Details Sexual Violence Prevention

Emory University Administration Building. Photo by Jason Oh.

By Sonam Vashi
Executive Editor

A University task force dedicated to addressing and evaluating sexual violence prevention at Emory released its report in late October, detailing recommendations for how the University could better implement prevention efforts.

The Sexual Violence Prevention Visioning Task Force, convened in April 2014 by Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Claire Sterk and Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Ajay Nair, outlined several recommendations for “comprehensive and sustainable sexual violence prevention programming at Emory,” according to the report.

The recommendations include the creation of a University-wide sexual assault prevention advisory board; reorienting compliance-based initiatives to prevention-based initiatives; an increase of personnel and fiscal resources toward prevention programming; an increase in sexual violence prevention programming throughout students’ academic careers; and a focus on comprehensive program evaluation.

The Task Force was formed just before the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) listed Emory as one of 55 colleges under open federal review regarding its handling of sexual violence claims on campus in May 2014.

Emory’s task force, which met over the summer, was created after the White House released its own series of recommendations for colleges in April 2014 in a report titled “Not Alone: The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault.”

The recommendations from Emory’s Sexual Violence Prevention Task Force are modeled after the framework from this White House task force, which was co-chaired by the Office of the Vice President and the White House Council on Women and Girls, according to the White House report.

“Along with Ajay Nair, I felt that it was important for Emory to address the nationwide challenge of sexual violence on University campuses,” Sterk wrote in an email to the Wheel. “The Task Force that we convened for our campus was made up of faculty, staff and student leaders from across the University. They worked diligently to come up with a set of comprehensive, achievable and measurable goals with a public health focus.”

The Sexual Violence Prevention Task Force was co-chaired by Dr. Jessica McDermott Sales, associate research professor in behavioral sciences and health education at the Rollins School of Public Health and Jessica Hill, associate director for prevention strategies at Campus Life’s Office of Health Promotion. Along with some students from the Rollins School of Public Health, other members of the 13-member Task Force included former Assistant Director of the Respect program Lauren (LB) Klein; current Respect Program Assistant Director Andrew Rizzo; College senior and former Sexual Assault Peer Advocates (SAPA) President Elizabeth Neyman; Dr. Dawnovise Fowler, a behavioral scientist at the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division of Violence Prevention; and Dr. Debra Houry, director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Control and Prevention.

The report analyzes the scope of sexual violence, citing various studies that showcase misconceptions about sexual assault and the extensive mental and behavioral impacts caused by sexual violence, and then began its recommendations.

“Sexual violence is a public health problem,” Hill wrote in an email to the Wheel, citing statistics from the CDC website that state that one in five women and one in 71 men report experiencing rape in their lifetime, and that almost one in two women and one in five men have reported experiencing other forms of sexual violence victimization.

Hill added that a public health approach to violence prevention uses a process that includes defining the problem, identifying protective and risk factors, developing and testing prevention strategies and then adopting those strategies more broadly while monitoring and evaluating them.

“I think a public health approach to violence prevention is valuable … because it allows us to understand how frequently sexual assault is happening in our community and what other factors are frequently present,” Hill wrote. “A public health approach also has a strong focus on evaluating efforts to assess if prevention programs and policies are having impact, which can help us improve them in the future.”

The report recommends a University-wide Sexual Violence Prevention Advisory Board “to support data-driven, comprehensive and cohesive sexual violence prevention efforts across the university,” according to the report.

During its Oct. 28 meeting, the University Senate voted on and approved this board, establishing the Standing Committee for the Prevention of Sexual Violence, which will assess and potentially implement many of the recommendations of the report.

The new Committee will be chaired by Sales and will also include Hill, Rizzo, Houry, Associate Vice Provost of Equity and Inclusion Lynell Cadray, Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and African Studies Pamela Scully and others.

“We currently are in the process of understanding the structures and bylaws for standing committees, but at this point we envision this standing committee will take on the role of the ‘Advisory Board’ that was outlined in the report,” Hill wrote.

Additionally, the report recommends the utilization of climate surveys among the student population, a recommendation derived from those of the White House Task Force.

These surveys, both Emory-specific as well as cross-university surveys, would be developed by public health experts and other community members in order to collect relevant data surrounding the sources and effects of sexual violence.

“One of the first priorities of our Committee is to support the Climate Survey Sub-committee in the development of a University Climate Survey,” Sales wrote in an email to the Wheel. Additionally, the report emphasizes the need for basic and regularly maintained response and prevention training for all Emory community members, and the report also calls for increased fiscal and personnel resources for prevention-focused staff in the Respect program and in the recommended Advisory Board.

“Overall, I think a challenge in this work is recognizing that sexual violence prevention is a long-term and continuous project for our community,” Hill wrote, noting that the Respect program, student groups and other Emory community members have already laid a foundation for this project.

The Task Force recommends that the University should enhance existing prevention efforts, which include increased awareness of sexual violence, bystander intervention training, engagement with men as allies in prevention and decreasing high-risk alcohol use at the University, according to the report.

The report specifically mentions that the University should continue or enhance Haven, an online module required for incoming students; sexual assault prevention parts of Creating Emory; SAPA and “The Talk,” a Greek Life-centered training that discusses sexuality and the importance of communication during sexual activity.

“At the campus community level, it is critical for all students to be engaged in prevention in order to alter the climate surrounding sexual violence on campus,” the report states. “This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but exposing all students to prevention efforts frequently throughout their college careers is key.”

The report then recommends clearer language for the University’s policies on punishment for perpetrators, outlined in Sexual Misconduct Policy 8.2 and the Equal Opportunity and Discriminatory Harassment Policy. “It’s an especially important time for the Emory community to be engaged in sexual violence prevention because of the current national movement to end sexual assault on college campuses, as well as the lived experiences of students on our own campus,” Hill wrote in an email.

College junior Ryan Sutherland, a member on the Task Force and an intern in the Respect program, wrote in an email to the Wheel that he was honored to serve on the Task Force over the summer.

“This was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life — ultimately, our major concern was developing sustainable and comprehensive prevention programing across the socioecological model at Emory,” Sutherland wrote.

Sterk, who is also the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Public Health, wrote that she has seen firsthand the effectiveness of sexual violence prevention programs and strategies.

“Sexual violence causes serious damage not only to those who are assaulted but also to the entire community,” Sterk wrote. “The emphasis on prevention programming and messaging in these recommendations is transformative. If we can prevent assaults before they occur, we make Emory a safer community.”

— By Sonam Vashi, Executive Editor