Effort to poll college students on sex assaults falls flat

Ohio colleges revisit definition of ‘consent,’ add programming for incoming students

College students across Ohio returning to campus after a summer marked by heightened discussion of sexual assaults are being greeted with more training in assault prevention and increasingly stringent definitions of “consent” as the state struggles to gather meaningful data on the topic.

A national dialogue on campus sexual assault was spurred by the arrest and controversial sentence given to Oakwood graduate Brock Turner after he sexually assaulted an unconscious woman at Stanford University. Turner moved to Bellbrook this month after serving three months in jail.

Despite increased publicity surrounding the issue, the state of Ohio’s first step in a statewide approach to address campus sexual assault by collecting information to drive programming fell far short of gathering useful information at most schools, an I-Team investigation found.

Not a single student at Edison Community College in Piqua answered the survey when it was sent out in the spring. Of Ohio State University’s 65,000 students, only 37 took part. More than half of the state’s private schools didn’t fully participate, including the University of Dayton, Cedarville University and Wilberforce University.

The survey was the first step in the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s $2 million Changing Campus Culture initiative. Survey questions focused on attitudes and the prevalence of sexual assault at public and private colleges.

“Our objective … is that 100 percent of Ohio’s campuses adopt 100 percent of the recommendations by the 2016-2017 academic year,” said ODHE Chancellor John Carey when the effort was announced in 2015.

University officials say the survey is one small part of each school’s comprehensive plan to teach consent and sexual assault prevention. They and state officials said they plan to re-administer the survey, some in the fall and some next spring, with the goal of increasing response rates.

“There’s room to grow and improve, without question, in the initiative,” said Kerry Soller, ODHE’s Changing Campus Culture project manager.

She noted that the surveys were voluntary for the schools and the 23,000 students who did fill out the survey provided some sense of attitudes statewide. The results were used over the summer in offering schools training in preventing and responding to sexual assault claims.

Take the survey yourself

Students statewide, on average, felt their schools were “moderately likely” to take a report seriously and take corrective action against offenders. Community college students were most confident in both questions, followed by private schools and then public universities.

“We would all like to see the response rates go up and give us more guidance and feedback on what’s going on in their (individual) campuses,” Soller said.

Explore>>>State Survey Results

In the meantime, students and parents have little reliable information with which to gauge campus safety and few tools to hold schools accountable for how they handle allegations of sexual assault.

Katie Hannah, director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said that in the aftermath of the public outcry over the Turner case she has seen more public agencies reaching out for training.

“In our outrage about the injustice many survivors face and the violence that we must … prevent, we must work toward policy solutions that address the root of the problem, which we believe starts with prevention K-12,” she said. “We cannot wait until students go to college to have conversations about consent and healthy relationships.”

Antioch’s ‘legacy’

Some schools that did comply with the statewide survey yielded startling results.

At Antioch College, for example, 166 of its roughly 260 students filled out the benchmark survey. While there isn’t enough data for a meaningful comparison among schools, it appears Antioch students were among the least confident that their school would take a report seriously or hold a perpetrator accountable.

Antioch has been heralded for being at the forefront of sexual assault prevention; it was the first school to require each partner to affirmatively consent to each step of a sexual encounter, which led it to being lambasted on Saturday Night Live in 1993.

Students sitting at a picnic table between classes recently ventured that Antioch’s heavy emphasis on sexual assault awareness may lead students to have higher standards for the school.

This may be true, said third-year education major Conor Jameson as she walked between classes, but she added that students everywhere should have higher expectations. She ventured that student confidence may be low at Antioch because the school is rebuilding and still relatively small and inexperienced in handling these cases.

Antioch
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Antioch

“I don’t think that there’s enough people to really support students,” she said, “because we have had instances of sexual assault and they weren’t handled very well. I don’t think that’s because the people that work here are incompetent, I think that’s because there’s a lack of time and ability to really see things through.”

Antioch College officials said they have handled about half a dozen violations of the school’s sexual violence policy over the past year. None of the cases involved allegations of rape or led to a suspension or expulsion, officials said, noting violations could include attempting to kiss another student without prior affirmative consent.

Antioch Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Lori Collins-Hall said the school handles these issues with a high level of confidentiality, so students may not be aware of the outcome of cases. And she believes students at the Greene County school are more aware of social justice issues such as sexual assault, and because of that can be more critical than other student bodies.

She noted the fact that more than half of the school’s students responded to the survey “is a hint to the awareness. It’s a long legacy here.”

Defining consent

Schools across Ohio have stepped up their sexual assault prevention and response programs amid increasing pressure from the public and the U.S. Department of Education. And many have moved toward Antioch’s once-mocked standard.

In August, Ohio State updated its code of student conduct to define consent as “Permission that is clear, knowing, voluntary, and expressed prior to engaging in and during an act. Consent is active, not passive. Silence, in and of itself, cannot be interpreted as consent. Consent can be given by words or actions, as long as those words or actions create mutually understandable clear permission regarding willingness to engage in (and the conditions of) sexual activity.”

OSU officials say they hope to improve the response rate to the statewide survey. In the meantime, they note that the school was one of 27 universities nationwide to take part in a similar effort, which found 63.6 percent of OSU students believe it was very or extremely likely that a report of sexual assault or sexual misconduct would be taken seriously by campus officials. The national average was 63.3 percent.

Sexual assault prevention is part of OSU’s orientation and it is reinforced through a student-run “It’s On Us” campaign, among other programs.

OSU
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OSU

This poster is part of Ohio State University’s “Consent is Sexy” campaign to educate students about consent and preventing sexual assault.

“That said, there is always room for improvement, and Ohio State is committed to strengthening our collective ability to make our campus and our state a safer and more civil space for students, faculty and staff to thrive and succeed,” said OSU spokesman Ben Johnson.

Miami University, which last year also changed its policy to require more affirmative consent, had one of the largest response rates in the state to the benchmark survey. Its students felt the school is “moderately likely” to take a sexual assault report seriously, and less likely to take action against an offender.

“We take the report seriously and believe that we respond as strongly as possible in sexual and interpersonal violence cases, both judicially and in support and response,” said Miami spokeswoman Claire Wagner.

“We hope that expectations are high at Miami because awareness is high. You may find it interesting that anecdotally, some students think we act too harshly against alleged perpetrators,” she said. “Also, in providing fair and impartial university investigations, privacy is protected to the extent possible, and sometimes that inability to share information publicly leads to students feeling frustrated with the process.”

Miami officials said that based on survey results, the school added a program for first-year students to further explain the definition of consent. And the school is hiring staff and partnering with Women Helping Women to increase support for students.

Click below to see the state survey results 

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Little information

Among those who filled out the survey, the numbers show some correlation suggesting that respondents who personally knew a victim of a sexual assault had less confidence that an institution would take action against an offender.

But overall, little information about campus safety and the effectiveness of these programs are available to the public.

Every campus in the country, for example, is required to annually post the number of sexual assaults and other crimes on campus of which school officials become aware. But these numbers only apply to crimes that occur on campus — not those involving Miami University students in Oxford, or UD students in privately owned student housing, or off campus in Cedarville.

Seventeen schools had fewer than 100 students respond to the Changing Campus Culture survey.

Edison Community College did not get any responses. Vice President for Student Affairs Scott Burnam said the survey was emailed to every one of the school’s 2,797 students.

“We just didn’t get any responses,” he said, noting it was sent out at the end of spring semester when students were bombarded with surveys about professors and classes.

“I think some of it was timing. I think some of it was just a campus culture thing, as a commuter campus.”

For three years, Edison has required incoming students to take an introductory class that teaches consent as a component. This is now common at many schools, with many teaching that consent goes beyond “no means no.”

UD’s survey

Several schools that didn’t participate in the statewide survey — such as UD and Cedarville — said they were already conducting their own surveys prior to the state’s effort, though questions were posed differently.

Because they are private schools, they are not required to release results. But UD officials volunteered that 91 percent of their students believe that the school would take a report of sexual assault seriously and 88 percent believe the university would take action against an offender.

State officials say they hope all schools, public and private, take part in the survey in the future.

Explore>>>State Survey Results

Male and female UD students winding down from a day of classes on their porches in the student housing neighborhood on a recent afternoon overwhelmingly expressed confidence that the school — and their fellow students — would take action to prevent and respond to a sexual assault.

They were aware of the Turner case, though most said it didn’t really change the way they thought about sexual assault. It did reinforce what they had been taught: that what Turner did was wrong. And some noted that differs from movies and television shows that glamorize going to the bar, getting drunk and hooking up — actions that could lead to rape charges.

“The fortunate part about these cases is even though they are horrible or tragic for the people involved, they draw attention to the matter,” said Brad Wolfred, a third-year psychology student. “Hopefuly more colleges are taking the time and attention to investigate these problems on campus, and I think UD is doing that.”