The University of Texas released a study last year that detailed how prevalent sexual assault and misconduct was on campus. UT President Greg Fenves called the report “a wake-up call” and promised to make improvements.
A year later, the school is focusing more on helping students navigate the process.
The March 2017 report found 15 percent of undergraduate women at UT reported they had been raped and 28 percent were victims of unwanted sexual touching, according to a 2015 survey of 7,500 students. The survey from UT’s Cultivating Learning and Safe Environments project, also known as CLASE, is part of a multi-year study aimed at better understanding sexual assault, dating violence, sexual harassment and stalking across all 13 campuses in the UT System.
Leila Wood, one of the project’s principal investigators, says the studies efforts go beyond understanding how common sexual violence is on campus. It also examines student experiences and promotes programs that can help survivors.
“There has been research about the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses since the 80s,” Wood says. “But what we’re going to do about it – and how responsive universities need to be – was kind of more in the background, and there was a history of universities not addressing sexual violence issues.”
Wood says the data from the confidential online questionnaire not only showed how many students were victims of sexual violence, but also how few report it.
One reason for that underreporting is simple: People react to trauma differently.
Another reason, Wood says, is because of the reporting process itself. The federal law, which requires a formal reporting of instances of sexual assault or harassment, may be unintentionally deterring some victims from getting help. While that process holds institutions accountable, the immediacy of a formal report can often be daunting for survivors.
So, UT came up with a less formal reporting process that uses so-called confidential advocates.
“If you experience a victimization, and I was your confidential advocate, you could come to me and we could talk through options without initiating a formal Title IX report,” Wood says. “So part of it is trying to maximize the opportunities survivors have to get support.”
The university started offering this type of private support last fall not long after the CLASE report was released, relying on advocates who can both help students continue their education after sexual harassment or assault and navigate the Title IX reporting process.
“We really wanted to cast a wide net in defining who could receive these services so that way we are catching any students who are needing support with these issues,” says Van Ness.
She says the response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive both on campus and in the community.
“The CLASE survey helped the university acknowledge … that we wanted more support for students on campus,” Van Ness says. “There have already been really wonderful programs that exist, and to be able to broaden those resources only benefits our campus community.”