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HHS grant will aid regional universities on sexual assault prevention

Wed, 08/03/2016

LAWRENCE — As part of a three-year, $750,000 grant, University of Kansas researchers will aid colleges and universities in three states in adopting sexual assault policies and prevention strategies.

The Heartland Sexual Assault Policies & Prevention on Campuses Project has received the award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health to work with institutions in Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas, including KU and Kansas State University. The project aims to help post-secondary schools prevent sexual assaults on campus based on a gender-centered public health framework.

"Sexual violence has historically been discussed as a problem that individual women experience, which has kept this problem hidden, discussed in secrecy and shame, and has contributed to ignoring the deleterious impact sexual violence poses for society," said Alesha Doan, KU associate professor of political science and in the School of Public Affairs and Administration. "Sexual violence injures individuals, and it erodes the health and well-being of our communities. It is an issue of social injustice that has long-term negative consequences."

The research team includes Doan, the grant's principal investigator; Juliana Carlson, assistant professor in the School of Social Welfare, and Natabhona Mabachi, a research assistant professor of Family Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Doan and Carlson are faculty affiliates of the KU Institute for Policy & Social Research, which developed and will administer the grant. 

Doan co-chaired and Carlson and Mabachi served as members on the Chancellor's Task Force on Sexual Assault.

In 2015 the task force delivered a report to Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. KU administrators then instituted or began the process of implementing 22 of the group's 27 recommendations.

Sexual assault on college campuses has received heightened national attention in recent years, especially at the urging of the Obama administration. Researchers in 2009 found that nationally 19 percent of undergraduate women either experienced a sexual assault or had one attempted against them, and separate studies have detailed high levels of victimization against men and transgender individuals as well, the KU researchers said.

Carlson said colleges and universities typically have had insufficient policies to prevent and address sexual violence on campus because higher education leaders systematically underestimated the significance of the problem and that institutions lacked the capacity to address it. The research and advocacy are particularly important for the three states involved in this project, the researchers said, because evidence from Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska was missing in the 2014 White House Sexual Assault Task Force outlining prevention efforts.

That report also showed the region had very few rape-prevention education programs that were focused on college campuses and no campus-specific programs funded through the Department of Justice's Office of Violence against Women.

"This demonstrates the critical absence of large-scale, evidence-based strategies at the regional level to address sexual assault on campus," Carlson said. "A regionally focused approach provides the opportunity to create a geographical and cultural competency that must be considered when building an effective technical advisory group, campus task forces and school capacity to implement policies that are designed to foster long-term change."

In addition to KU and Kansas State University, researchers will work with a diverse set of higher education institutions. This includes Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis and Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, both Historically Black Universities; Rockhurst University, a Jesuit university in Kansas City, Missouri; Crowder College, a community college in Webb City, Missouri; the University of Nebraska-Kearney, and Nebraska Wesleyan University, a private college in Lincoln.

"We will be working with this diverse collection of partners to strengthen and build the institutional capacity at each institution," Doan said, "while also addressing any unique needs of the student populations at each school."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promotes a public health approach to preventing sexual assault. This includes developing a comprehensive framework addressing the issue at a population level, studying the risk and protecting factors involved, testing interventions with rigorous evaluation methods and broadly disseminating those findings.

As part of the grant, the Heartland Project will work with the institutions on sexual assault campus policy and prevention by:

  • Convening a technical advisory group with representatives from four partnering organizations, other experts and students to collaborate on innovative strategies and resources to disseminate.
  • Establishing and maintaining campus task forces that represent all necessary stakeholders.
  • Implementing strengths-based assessment of sexual assault policy and prevention approaches.
  • Evaluating the effect of assessment and advisory groups and task forces on comprehensive, gender-centered public health policy and prevention strategies outcomes.
  • Implementing a data-tracking system to address task force progress, policy advances and sexual assault climate survey data.
  • Developing multiple forms of products to disseminate, including webinars, websites, social media content and other toolkits to assist the campuses and their community partners.

Carlson said action KU has taken stemming from the chancellor’s task force recommendations likely helped secure the grant and could assist in beginning conversations on other campuses.

"The leadership that KU's administration and specifically Chancellor Gray-Little demonstrated has, I'm sure, worked in our favor," she said.

Among the nine recipients across the country of this HHS grant to address sexual assault prevention, KU was only one of three universities to receive funding.

As part of a majority of the KU task force's 2015 recommendations that KU administrators implemented, the university has created a Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center and named its new director, as well as created memorandums of understanding with the city of Lawrence and the city’s Sexual Trauma & Abuse Care Center to address sexual violence.



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