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Curbing Sexual Assault Becomes Big Business On Campus

Schools are sifting through a flood of new products and programs geared toward raising awareness and lower risk for sexual assaults on campus.
Mary McLain

Students headed for college this fall can expect a slew of new efforts aimed at preventing campus sexual assault. A federal law that took effect this summer requires schools to offer programs to help raise awareness and lower risk.

It was once a tiny niche market, but it is now an exploding industry with everything from fingernail polish that detects date-rape drugs in drinks to necklaces that hide mini panic buttons — and all kinds of crash courses on how to get and give consent.

"Every other day there's a new group sprouting up offering slick advertisements and products," says Sharyn Potter, a researcher at the University of New Hampshire. Schools don't want to risk stiff penalties, and "corporations know that these administrators are panicking ... and shopping," she says.

Potter says UNH can barely keep up with demand for a program it is selling called Bringing in the Bystander. Cited by the White House as one of the most promising, the program teaches students to recognize when trouble is brewing and how best to step in and try to stop it.

Georgianna Meléndez, head of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, was one of about two dozen campus administrators from around New England who recently came to UNH to learn how to administer the program. Like many, she says she was spurred by the new federal mandate. "It's making us step it up a lot faster," Meléndez says. "There were certainly some things we weren't engaged in yet, we were talking about it. So now it's sort of like 'you need to get this done.' "

Bringing In The Bystander

During the all-day training session, Caroline Leyva, lead training and curriculum development specialist at UNH's Prevention Innovations Research Center, demonstrates a series of exercises meant to increase empathy for survivors, educate students about consent and encourage bystander intervention. The day culminates with Leyva drilling the group members on what they would do in a series of hypotheticals.

For example, she says: Imagine you're at a party and you see a girl who's really drunk being taken home by a guy who has told you he wants to hook up with her.

A middle-aged administrator from a campus in New England ventures a solution. "So we looked at the pros and cons and felt it was most appropriate to go home with them, to look out for the woman but then also to have a talk with your friend if his intentions are less than honorable," he says.

Leyva offers a nod and then gently tries to prod the administrators to think more like 19-year olds, who would be loath to intervene if it means sounding all preachy and holier-than-thou to their friends.

"Help students be creative," she says. Rather than a direct confrontation, a student could walk over to the couple and ask if they want to go for pizza. Or maybe, she says, a student could just back up to a light switch and accidentally on purpose flip it on.

"It's like deer in a headlight," Leyva explains. "It's going to halt the process for just a moment to let that person have an out."

Bringing in the Bystander, which costs $1,600 plus $350 for training, can be run as one 90-minute session or as several sessions over the course of a week. Many other products on the market aim to do the trick in a lot less time.

Tracking Progress

Haven is a 45-minute online program that students do at home before they come to campus. A second 15-minute follow up is offered on campus later in the fall. Designed by EverFi, a company that has been offering online alcohol awareness programs since 2000, it includes basic education as well as exercises designed to boost students' willingness and ability to intervene. It's a slick design, with actors performing college party scene scenarios and a Wheel of Fortune-like device that students can "spin" for solutions.

"It's incredibly effective," says Rob Buelow, one of Haven's developers. "Students are living and learning more and more in a digital world and to not use that environment to engage them on these issues is a real missed opportunity."

Buelow says interest in the program has skyrocketed. Six hundred campuses are currently running it, twice what it was two years ago. Most schools pay between $10,000 and $20,000 a year, depending on their size. Part of the value, Buelow says, is that schools get a way to document that they're complying with the law, since the program tracks whether students have completed it.

The company says exit surveys show students' attitudes improve after the course, especially those students with the most room for improvement. But many in the field remain skeptical of what they call click-through programs.

"These quick-and-dirty programs online are really good at marketing their product," says John Foubert, an Oklahoma State University professor who studies prevention and runs programs of his own. "But I'm not at all convinced that they're effective at doing much of anything except documenting that policy has been met."

There's Even An App For That

Even more questionable to some experts is the bevy of mobile apps that promise to help curb assault. One that just hit the market, called We-Consent, records students agreeing to sexual activity. A breathy female voice with a British accent asks the user to "say the name of the person with whom you would like to have sexual relations." Then the app announces to the other person, that so-and-so "would like to have sexual relations with you" and asks for consent. If all goes well, the app ends with the sultry female voice announcing, "Have Fun!"

"It's a very powerful tool," says developer Michael Lissack, a former Wall Street banker turned social scientist. He's selling the app on his website, We-Consent, for $5 a year and is also trying to get schools to buy it in bulk, for all their students. Lissak says Apple has refused to sell it in its App Store, calling it "icky." But Lissack insists his app is exactly the kind of tool that's needed to change behavior.

"We need props. We need tools. We are human, This is how we make change," he says. "It's not going to happen by people saying education. No. We all took driver's ed. How many of us speed? How many of us pass on the right?"

But experts caution that as new untested products flood the market, the risk is not only that some just won't help but that some products have actually been proven to hurt.

"That scares me," says Charlene Senn, who studies sexual assault prevention at the University of Windsor in Ontario. "Money is being poured into getting those programs that are homegrown, and usually that's a bad idea."

Senn says her research suggests the most promising approach may actually be one that virtually no one is doing: teaching women ways to avoid assault. Most schools are loath to go there, fearing they'd be seen as victim-blaming. But Senn says her method of training women to recognize risk and resist assault was proven to reduce rape by 50 percent, making it an approach schools can't afford to ignore.

"We do need to make stopping sexual violence everyone's problem, and that's the long-term solution," Senn says. "But women need the tools now. They need them this year."

As research continues, schools can expect to have more choices of programs that have been evaluated for their effectiveness, Senn says. But as schools continue to scramble to implement them, it's worth noting that the law requiring colleges to offer programs doesn't require students to take them. It's up to schools to decide whether to make any of these programs mandatory.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 11, 2015 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous Web version of this story incorrectly gave Caroline Leyva's surname as Levya. The name is also mispronounced in the audio.
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.
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