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Workshop provides advice for preventing sexual assault

NCAA Convention educational session addresses legal, cultural issues campuses must address to halt violent incidents.

Deborah Wilson, primary author/editor of "Addressing Sexual Assault and Interpersonal Violence" and associate athletic director at George Mason University, discusses the culture change needed to address sexual assault and interpersonal violence on college campuses.

The significance and urgency of addressing sexual violence steadily increased over the last year, raising awareness of some disturbing trends: 1 in 3 women will be sexually assaulted during their time in college; 1 in 12 men will experience the same; only 5 percent of those victims will report the crime to police.

The importance of addressing and preventing sexual and interpersonal violence has been recognized from the White House to college campuses across the country. But to change the culture that creates hostile environments, speakers at an NCAA Convention workshop on Wednesday stressed that education and training for both students and staff will be necessary.

The workshop, “Sexual Harrassment and Violence Prevention: The Law and the Role of the Athletics Department,” brought together experts in the laws, psychology and educational practices that address sexual violence and prevention. The conversation came after a year in which the NCAA joined the White House in a new sexual violence prevention program, “It’s On Us,” and the Association’s Executive Committee issued a statement laying out its expectations for how NCAA athletics departments should address the issue on their campuses.

“This is almost in epidemic proportions,” said Debbie Wilson, associate athletics director for academic services at George Mason University. “Our students are coming to our campuses already with a history of exposure to assault and sexual violence. Some of our students coming to campus will have been victims or survivors.

“We need to deal with that. … We must have effective prevention programs on our campus. And we have not had that.”

Effective training, the speakers said, goes beyond simply bringing in experts to speak to staff. One necessary element is helping staff members understand their responsibilities under laws that include Title IX and the Jeanne Clery Act, which protect students from the hostile environments created by incidents of sexual and interpersonal violence and requires campuses to report certain crimes, including sex offenses.

But changing the culture also means looking at how the issue is addressed on campus every day, examining how the topic is discussed – or not discussed – and how those regular actions can create a negative environment. To develop a culture in which students feel safe and empowered enough to intervene – one in which coaches and administrators make them feel comfortable reporting incidents – staff must first understand their roles and responsibilities under the laws, speakers said. Additionally the importance of the issue must be consistently stressed.

“You can’t pay lip service to this,” said Jeffrey O’Brien, director of mentors in violence prevention for the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. “You’re either about this, or you’re not about this. The lip service, just saying we’re going to do X, Y and Z, quickly becomes transparent. Everybody sees through this stuff very quickly.”

To help schools address the issue, in the fall the NCAA released a handbook – “Addressing Sexual Assault and Interpersonal Violence” – to help member schools become effective partners on their campuses and find solutions to the problem. Wilson, the book’s primary author and editor, told attendees the basic needs of a training program needed to include:

  • A directive delivered from the school president or chancellor;
  • Compliance elements that include institutional policies relating to both prevention and response;
  • Direction that identifies not only what should and should not be done, but also lays out goals and specifies the school’s aspirations for addressing the issue;
  • An educational overview that makes clear the nature of the problem. “People have got to be pulled in to understand how they relate to this problem,” Wilson said.
  • Education should also help students recognize and seek out healthy intimate relationships. “They must know how to negotiate a healthy sexual relationship that takes into account the well-being of both parties,” Wilson said.
  • The training should also focus on skill development – through techniques such as role-playing – rather than passively providing information.

While the urgency to address the issue has been communicated by the most powerful offices of American government in the last year, speakers stressed that athletics departments are well-positioned to effect change.

“College athletics has the single greatest possibility of making the strongest and most immediate impact in this area on our college campuses,” Wilson said. “Why is that? We are masters at building cultures. … We can do this. But we’re gonna have to get after it.”