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Professor Alesha Doan works on study to compare campus and community sexual assault response teams

Thursday, April 04, 2019


LAWRENCE — As sexual assault gains more recognition as a public health crisis, communities and campuses are increasing their focus on response to victims and prevention. Campus response teams have unique challenges and can learn from community response teams in responding to the problem, and a group of University of Kansas researchers has written a study comparing the missions of the two response teams, how they respond and what they can learn from each other.

Communities have a long-standing history of having dedicated response teams that respond to sexual assault. College campuses have a unique set of challenges, with certain procedures mandated by Title IX and a relatively newer focus on the problem. To compare the two response teams, authors reviewed eight studies of the respective organizations. In time for Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, the report compares the two response teams in four domains: Defined purpose, activities to achieve the purpose, membership and challenges to functioning.

Published in the journal Trauma, Violence & Abuse, the study was authored by Juliana Carlson, assistant professor of social welfare; Marcy Quiason, graduate research assistant; Alesha Doan, associate professor of women, gender & sexuality studies and faculty member in KU’s School of Public Affairs & Administration; and Natabhona Mabachi, associate professor at KU Medical Center.

Among the biggest differences, campus response teams tended to have larger, broader membership, more organizational barriers and a tendency to not evaluate efforts’ effectiveness. Community response teams are referred to as Sexual Assault Response Teams, or SARTs, and campus response teams as Campus Team Approaches, or CTAs.

“One of the things we’re very clear about is, instead of just trying something without evaluating it, there needs to be a measurement of its effectiveness,” Carlson said. “We didn’t see any of that in the literature.”

The study grew out of a grant project the researchers are conducting called the Heartland Sexual Assault Policies and Prevention on Campuses Project. Funded by a grant from the Department of Health & Human Services’ Office of Women’s Health, the project is working to improve sexual assault awareness and response on eight campuses in Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.

“Our whole goal and purpose in this grant is to increase our campuses’ capacity in prevention and to increase policies around sexual assault response,” Carlson said. “We want to know what we can learn from community SARTs and how we can apply that knowledge to campuses specifically.”

The analysis showed community SARTs tended to have a more clearly defined purpose as “coordinating direct services for survivors.” Campus response teams often cited varied scopes of violence, such as sexual assault, domestic violence or gender-based violence. SARTs had a narrower scope of activities focused on improving coordination and delivery of services to survivors, while CTAs had a much broader range of strategies that included goals such as assessing campus needs, prevention and awareness programming, and developing collaboration and communication. In terms of membership, SARTs tended to be smaller with core organizations represented such as law enforcement, health care professionals and the justice system. CTAs had a larger, broader membership from a number of campus units and community representatives. As for challenges, both cited role confusion and conflict, but SARTs also said maintaining confidentiality was a unique challenge and organizational barriers were a bigger problem for CTAs.

Given those revelations, the researchers recommend several steps campus response teams and policymakers can take to improve services to sexual assault survivors. Among them, campus response teams could be well-served to focus more on responding to and serving survivors, instead of splitting focus between response and prevention.

“We think that’s probably not entirely helpful,” Carlson said of the wide focus. “Your campus team approach doesn’t need to do everything. If you’re focusing on multiple aspects, you might not be as effective at any one of them as you could be. We’re not saying that domestic violence isn’t important or that you shouldn’t think about prevention, just that a sexual assault response team needs a clear, discrete focus.”

Campus response teams could also learn from SARTs’ history of effective collaboration among agencies and communication in developing strategies to address the organizational barriers they face, the researchers write. Campuses, home to researchers, could also rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of sexual assault only and more broadly focused CTAs to add data to their evaluations. Policymakers could support that research by making more federal research funding available to study sexual assault and could also assist by making such response teams mandatory on university campuses, instead of something they opt into.

As part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month activities coordinated by the Sexual Assault Prevention & Education Center, KU is presenting a screening of the film “Roll Red Roll” and Q&A with director Nancy Schwartzman at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 10, in Woodruff Auditorium. The film focuses on the rape of a young woman at a high school football party in Steubenville, Ohio, and the aftermath that exposed a culture of complicity and how peer pressure, denial, machismo and social media played into the tragedy. Carlson will also present a research impact talk April 18 in the Kansas Union Big 12 room on stopping violence before it starts, including how to translate sexual assault research into practice for communities and organizations.

The film screening and talk all can help shed light on the crisis of campus sexual assault, how rape culture allows it to happen and how the problem can be addressed.

“Survivors are not always believed, or sometimes they are viewed as creating a problem for the institution,” Carlson said. “We believe it is in campuses’ best interests to have good collaboration, communication and robust sexual assault response teams. It’s good for both students and campuses. We need to understand this is a campus community issue, not just a personal issue, and we need to think about what’s going on in our society that allows sexual violence to happen and be thought of as normal. It’s not enough to understand violence happens to our students. If we know it’s happening, how are institutions responding?”

The "Roll Red Roll" screening is sponsored by KU’s Department of Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies; School of Social Welfare; School of Journalism & Mass Communications; School of Public Affairs & Administration; College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and Department of American Studies.

Video: A trailer for the documentary "Roll Red Roll," a film about a notorious rape case in Steubenville, Ohio. The film will be screened with a Q&A with the director following April 10 at KU as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month events. Credit: Vimeo.com. 


Ruth DeWitt, Communications Manager
KU School of Public Affairs and Administration
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