In an effort to prevent more sexual assaults, a University of Washington task force is taking steps to make it easier for students to report a rape and is recommending training to encourage students to look out for one another in social situations.
The recommendations, which call for a cultural shift in the way sexual assaults are perceived and handled, come as the Obama administration and the U.S. Department of Education are calling for a heightened focus on preventing rapes on campuses across the nation.
A recent series of highly publicized rapes on college campuses has propelled the issue into the national spotlight.
“Many of us are saying, ‘It’s about time,’ ” said Ellen Taylor, assistant vice president for student life and director of the UW Counseling Center.
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UW President Michael Young convened the task force a year ago, before campus assaults were drawing much attention. The task force’s recommendations came out in October, and some are already being implemented. Others are being worked on or are awaiting funding.
Many dovetail recommendations made by a White House task force that studied ways to prevent sexual assault.
“We’re coming out early, and we can be positioning ourselves as leaders,” said Kiana Scott, the student representative on the UW Board of Regents, the university’s governing body.
The task force outlined 18 actions for changing the campus culture and responding more effectively to assaults on campus.
Taylor said many of the recommendations are driven by research.
There’s strong evidence, she said, that sexual assaults can be prevented if students are trained to intervene when they spot a situation in which one student could take advantage of another. During a party, for example, students can intervene when a friend is being harassed or coerced.
“We have a tendency to hang back,” Taylor said. “We want to create a culture where one student is saying to another, ‘Dude, this is not OK.’ ”
Taylor said it’s widely believed that sexual assaults are vastly underreported — not just on university campuses, but everywhere. A White House task force that also studied the issue said 1 in 5 female students has been assaulted, but just 12 percent of such attacks get reported.
In a UW survey of more than 1,000 undergraduates conducted three years ago, 61 percent of respondents said sexual abuse between college students was a problem. Twelve percent of women who responded, and 1 percent of men, said they had been in a sexually abusive relationship with a dating partner since coming to the UW.
Students also reported sexual touching without consent, stalking, sexual coercion and unwanted sex.
Some survey respondents said they were dissatisfied with the school’s efforts to help, and said student resources should be advertised more heavily or expanded to reach more students.
The survey was conducted for the UW’s Sexual Assault & Relationship Violence program, a university program that helps support students when they report a sexual assault to police, and which also offers education and prevention training. The survey is being repeated again this spring.
Taylor said the task force also wants to teach students how to respond when a friend confides that he or she has been assaulted, because most abuse victims turn first to friends for support.
Raising awareness of sexual assaults and encouraging more students to report them is almost sure to cause an uptick in reports of the crimes.
“As awareness goes up, reporting also goes up,” said Provost Ana Mari Cauce during a meeting of the UW Regents on Thursday. “Keep that in mind.”
For that reason, Taylor said, the reported numbers of sexual assaults often don’t tell the full story. For example, a school with a high number of assaults may be doing a better job of making students feel safe about reporting the crime than a school that has low numbers.
Taylor said the UW is planning to develop a simple website to help guide students in assault cases. Currently, that information is scattered across different university Web pages.
At the national level, the Obama administration is expected to ask Congress to pass measures that would require universities to more aggressively combat sexual assaults on campus and levy penalties if they fail to do so.
And last week, the U.S. Department of Education released a list of 55 universities that are being investigated for their handling of sexual-abuse complaints. The list included Washington State University, although UW officials took pains to note that institutions on the list haven’t necessarily done anything wrong.
Taylor, who has worked in the field for 25 years, said she’s pleased that so much attention is being focused on the problem.
“The national conversation and attention on this is more heightened than I have seen it at any time in my professional career,” she said.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.