The numbers are staggering: Nearly a quarter of women say they received some kind of unwanted sexual contact in college.
And freshmen women were at greater risk than older students: 17 percent of first-years reported a serious sexual assault compared with 11 percent for seniors.
The statistics, released Monday, are the findings of the Association of American Universities Campus Climate Survey, which tabulated data from 150,000 students at 27 schools.
Faced with the numbers — which reflect assaults on women, men and LGBTQ students — how can parents feel that the kid they just sent off to college is safe?
The first step is finding out how your kid’s school is educating students about consent and sexual assault.
“It doesn’t matter which college or university you go to; it’s pretty much universal, that every campus over the last two years has geared up the educational efforts around sexual assault on campus,” said Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. “It’s such a major public issue, every university I go to has significantly ramped up the work it does in this space.”
Start with a conversation, experts said. “In talking to their kids, parents should just make sure they’re aware of the risk, and that they know that this is an issue that’s going to affect many of their classmates,” said Scott Berkowitz, founder of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. “You want to do it in a way that’s not going to scare them, and you don’t want to convey that you can never go to a party or you can’t have a social life, but you should go through your college experience with the knowledge and understanding that there are some bad people out there, and they prey on young victims.”
Kruger suggested typing “sexual assault” into the search bar of the school’s website. There, you should find a wealth of information for students, from prevention and awareness to resources offered if an assault occurs.
“At orientation on many campuses, you’d expect your students to have taken part of mandatory online educational program about sex assault, or sessions that might talk about how the university defines consent,” said Kruger. “They would show scenarios that might help students understand the nature of consent and what that looks like.”
Another valuable tool is so-called bystander education, or teaching students how to intervene when an intoxicated friend may be putting him or herself in danger. Many colleges are beginning to implement it in orientation training, but it bears repeating at home.
“It’s trying to get people to trust their instincts,” said Berkowitz. “Most people see a conversation, they see the know if they have that feeling something’s a little off, someone’s getting a little too aggressive, a little too familiar, and so colleges are starting to try and teach them what to do in that situation, how to very tactfully jump into the conversation or divert your friends before it ever turns violent.”
Email the school’s orientation director to find out what, if anything, students learned during training sessions, which are not federally mandated but are becoming more and more prevalent on campuses across the country.
Arm your student’s cell phone with one of many safety apps aimed at preventing violence. One of the earliest, call Circle of 6, is free, and will geo-locate you and allow you to reach out to friends for help with one touch.
“Make sure your kids know that their parents are going to have their backs if they ever need to jump in a cab, or an Uber, because they feel like their safety is at risk, that mom and dad are going to cover it,” said Berkowitz. Consider giving your student an emergency credit card for those situations.
And parents — as well as students — should know what resources are available at their kids’ schools in case an assault occurs.
“As a parent, I would want to know to reinforce with my son and daughter, if something were to happen, what do you do? What’s the phone number? Where’s the office? How do you report it?” said Kruger. “If they call in the middle of the night and have experienced something awful, you can right away say, ‘I know of this resource.’”
If you want more specifics on crime stat at your kid’s school, those numbers are public via the Clery Act — and are searchable here. That data only represents reported crime, however, whereas a campus climate survey like the one released Monday is considered a more comprehensive look at crimes both reported unreported.
The good news out of Monday’s findings is that the public push towards increased visibility and accountability is stronger than ever before.
Earlier this year, 34 bipartisan senators introduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which aims to mandate campus surveys and enforce colleges’ responsibility for reporting and increase fines for schools who don’t disclose crime stats.
And the Department of Education is currently investigating 139 schools for their handling of sexual violence cases.
“Every college administrator I’ve talked to in recent months is very focused on this problem,” said Berkowitz. “They know that it’s top of mind for parents and for students and for alumni.
“The risk today probably isn’t any higher than when we were in college, but the attention that’s being paid to fixing the problem is better than ever.”