UI report: First weeks of semester critical in combating sexual misconduct

UI report: First weeks of semester critical in combating sexual misconduct

URBANA — Sexual assaults are most common during the first two months of the school year, especially for freshmen, according to a University of Illinois report that recommends new efforts to support students in those critical early weeks.

The report, the second systematic survey of sexual misconduct on campus, also recommends targeting resources at specific groups who have a higher risk of sexual assault — students in the Greek system, LGBTQ community and those with disabilities — and doubling down on efforts to reduce alcohol abuse, a major risk factor.

While the vast majority of students overall felt the university takes sexual misconduct seriously, a third didn't know how to make a report of sexual misconduct and one in five didn't know where to get help, the report said.

"There are great time demands on first-year students already, and the University may want to examine the orientation process given the urgency of reducing violence during these initial weeks," the report said. Information about consent, sexual-assault prevention, risks and how to seek help may need to be disseminated before students arrive or during summer orientation, it said.

The report, to be released today, is based on a survey offered in March 2017 to 12,500 UI students. A total of 2,420 responded, or 19.4 percent, said psychology Professor Nicole Allen, who led both the 2017 survey and the first one in 2015.

Consistent with national surveys, a sizable minority of students reported experiencing sexual misconduct, from verbal harassment or sexist remarks by teachers to stalking, dating violence and other sexual assault.

The majority of students — 61.5 percent of women and 87.3 percent of men — reported no sexual assaults during their time at the UI. But almost one in five women — about 19 percent — and one in 25 men said they'd been raped. More common was unwanted fondling, reported by 32.5 percent of women and 9.8 percent of men.

Those numbers are higher than rates reported in the first UI survey in 2015, but Allen cautioned against comparisons because the survey methods changed.

That first online survey was offered broadly to all 44,000-plus students on campus, and about 6 percent completed it — 2,431 students, about the same as in 2017 but not a representative sample, she said. In 2017, researchers made a concerted effort to reflect the diversity on campus by targeting a representative subset of students, she said.

Allen believes the 2017 survey is a stronger sample and provides a good idea of what's happening on campus.

Given that only one in five people responded, "we can't be assured that what we find is representative of the campus as a whole," Allen said, but "our numbers remain very comparable to what we're seeing nationwide. This is a problem on our campus, just like it is on other campuses."

Report calls for training

Of those who reported any kind of sexual assault in the 2017 study, 43.1 percent said it had occurred within the past 12 months. And the numbers spiked during September and October — 42 and 54 reports, compared to 30 or below in other months.

Almost 29 percent of those responding reported a sexual assault during their first year at the UI, dropping to 16.2 percent by the fourth year.

The report said all those working with first-year students, including RAs in residence halls, should be trained how to encourage safe drinking, accountability among peers and the importance of consent, rather than waiting for students to go through sexual-assault prevention programs.

Of the students reporting sexual assault, the majority (59.5 percent) said it had occurred off-campus, most commonly at bars (12.7 percent) or fraternity or sorority events (21.5 percent).

Almost 78 percent reported using alcohol or drugs before an assault occurred, along with 65.4 percent of perpetrators.

And compared to the campus as a whole, members of sororities or fraternities reported drinking "more days out of the year, drinking more alcohol in a typical session, and engaging in more alcohol binges."

Given those findings, the report recommended trying to "shift norms around alcohol" by addressing the issue of consent and the critical role of bystanders to prevent assault in those situations. And it suggested more training and education for students in the Greek community, those with disabilities and the LGBTQ community, who reported higher rates of sexual assault.

'Cultural shift' needed

Allen and her co-author, graduate student Jonathan Bystrynski, emphasized that alcohol use does not cause sexual assault but rather creates a context that increases the risk, noting "perpetrators are responsible for their behavior," not the victim.

As with designated drivers, more and more women are using peer support and designating someone to "keep track of the group" in social settings, but the onus shouldn't be on women to protect themselves, Allen said. A "cultural shift" is needed to educate men about making the right choices and ensuring they have a woman's consent before engaging in sexual activity, she said.

Danita Brown Young, vice chancellor for student affairs, said she was pleased that the report found "more students are starting to talk about sexual misconduct and actually try to hold their peers accountable," that victims are comfortable reporting it to friends or family members, and that they trust UI officials will handle reports fairly and maintain a survivor's privacy. But the UI needs to do more to teach students how to find help on campus, she said.

The UI has expanded its "Haven" online education program to all students, not just freshmen, Young said. It will continue to offer the First Year Campus Acquaintance Rape Education program, bystander education workshops and peer-led workshops on sexual health offered through McKinley Health Center. The Greek system also has award-winning sexual-education programs, many led by students themselves, but there's always room for improvement, she said.

Young said the UI will continue to target new students but the programs have to be year-round.

"Those first couple of weeks are critical, but we know during welcome week our students are inundated with so much information" and worried about paying bills, buying books and finding classes, she said.

The campus is planning another "critical conversation" this fall on sexual misconduct, similar to those last spring on free speech and Native American imagery in sports.

More findings

Other findings from the UI's 2017 sexual-misconduct student survey:

'Sexist hostility'

— 31.1 percent of women and 20.3 percent of men reported some form of "sexist hostility" or gender harassment, from being treated differently because of their gender to offensive remarks.

— Smaller percentages (13.3 percent of women/7.5 percent of men) reported offensive sexual jokes, remarks or gestures.

— The majority (72.3 percent) occurred in the classroom, with 51.6 percent of them made by an instructor, adviser or supervisor; about 21 percent were from a graduate assistant.

Sexual harassment

— Unwanted sexual attention — repeated requests for dates or unwanted touching — was far less common, reported by 3.6 percent of women and 2.1 percent of men.

— Sexual "coercion" — where a person in a position of power tries to coerce sexual contact with bribes or punishment — was reported by only 1.3 percent of either group.

Education/support

— 57 percent of sexual-assault survivors had told someone about it, mostly family/friends; only 16 percent of them told someone at the university.

— 78 percent of students surveyed knew where to go for help on campus, but 2 in 5 were unsure what would happen next.

— 97 percent reported seeing some communication from the UI about sexual misconduct.

— Almost all had gone through a sexual-assault-prevention workshop, and 2 in 5 had attended a program that taught them what to do as a bystander to stop it.

— 6 out of 7 students said they would check in on a drunk friend at a party.