Talking about sexual assault – already a difficult issue to discuss – comes with a new set of challenges when that conversation rises to university administration level. School officials have to carefully decide the best course of action amid managing myriad stakeholders including media, students, parents, and donors during an emotionally charged time.
University officials might not be able to answer many questions pending legal action or because of federal regulations, says Erin Hennessy, VP at TVP Communications, which helps many universities, including Cornell University and University of Maryland, with thought leadership, crisis communications, and strategy planning.
"We try and focus on being as transparent as possible within the confines of the situation we are dealing with," she says. "This is an area where the relationship between the communications team and legal counsel has to be hand in glove."
Confidentiality is key
The subject has been in the spotlight of late with student Emma Sulkowicz making headlines carrying her mattress around Columbia University to protest the decision not to expel her alleged rapist. Her efforts sparked protests in support across the country and she was invited to attend the State of the Union.
Despite press coverage or other conversations around crises, schools have to maintain the confidentiality of alleged victims and assailants while making clear to the community "the way they are approaching it and how they will continue to work to provide a safe, respectful academic environment," adds Hennessy.
"Most universities and colleges are probably not prepared for these big crises," she adds. "Not because they aren’t doing their jobs, but because it’s incredibly difficult to do the day-to-day work and also think long term about what might happen."
Issues involving the report of a sexual assault on campus "are incredibly complex situations that change, if not by the hour, then certainly by the day," notes Hennessy. It is critical that a university has the right experts available – whether that be on Title IX [sex discrimination], crisis communications, or student disciplinary procedures – to "start to answer the really difficult questions," she adds.
Even without an active report of assault on campus, schools can be proactive in reassuring students there are places and people they can seek out when they need help. Some students might opt to make an anonymous report, but need to understand what will happen next, Hennessy explains. And whoever files the report needs to know how to liaise with police or other law enforcement officials.
The Association of American Universities, working with research firm Westat, will release a survey in April – which is also Sexual Assault Awareness month, says Barry Toiv, VP for public affairs at the association. Representatives from the group put the survey together, "the largest of its kind," he adds.
The State University of New York took a proactive approach and decided to "take a lot of very good policies and make them into one cutting-edge, leading policy," says Joseph Storch, associate counsel at SUNY, an effort New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office partnered on.
While "no specific incident" sparked the collaboration, Storch says there was "a feeling we could do better."
Two town hall webinars were held to give stakeholders a look at the group’s progress and anonymous feedback was "considered in making changes," he adds.
Training for the policy, which was rolled out in 64 campuses, followed for university PR teams and other groups.
It’s On Us, a campaign started by the White House in September to combat sexual assault on college campuses, is looking to expand its reach, especially after a series of student protests across the country in 2014.
"Our goal is to change the conversation around sexual assault," says Kristin Avery, the effort’s campaign manager, "and change the way it is dealt with on campuses."
Survey sheds light on issue
MIT released results from its 2014 Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault survey last October.
The Boston Globe reported MIT was "the highest-profile college to put such an estimate on the prevalence of sexual violence on campus, amid heightened national attention on the issue."
According to survey results – 35% of students responded – 539 people reported having received "some form of unwanted sexual behavior," and 8% reported having been "either sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or raped."
However, while 63% of respondents told someone about what happened, fewer than 5% reported it to an appropriate college or law enforcement official.