Rebecca Hapes, Chair, NACADA Advisor Training and Development Commission
In today’s world, sexual violence, sexual harassment, dating violence, domestic violence, or stalking can happen to anyone, anywhere, regardless of age, ethnicity, race, or economic status. Higher education professionals strive to provide a safe environment conducive to learning and personal growth for students, but instances of this type of violence occurring at institutions of higher education happen despite those efforts. Historical statistics vary slightly depending on the definitions utilized in data gathering, but according to the World Health Organization (2002), “nearly 1 in 4 women may experience sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime” (para. 3). The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (2012), part of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, reports that of undergraduate women, “19% experienced attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college” (para. 2). Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Justice indicates that an estimated 9% of victims of rape and sexual assault are male (National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, n.d.).
Within the United States, there are laws in place designed for the protection of students from “unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior that significantly interferes with a student’s access to educational opportunities” (Title IX, n.d., para. 2). That particular law is, among other things, designed in part to foster a supportive learning environment for all students at institutions of higher education. Additionally, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, commonly referred to as the Clery Act, signed in 1990, requires all colleges and universities who receive federal funding to report statistical information about crime on their campus (Clery Center, n.d.). This act requires ongoing reporting for institutions and likewise mandates timely warnings and emergency notifications.
Academic advisors are in a position to establish and develop strong personal relationships with students. If student survivors of sexual violence choose to disclose, there is a possibility they will do so to their advisors with whom they have built strong relational ties.
To be adequately prepared for a conversation of this nature, academic advisors should:
- Know their reporting responsibilities per their institution requirements, state guidelines, and associated laws. Does the institution for whom the academic advisor works indicate advisors as mandatory reporters?
- Know their reporting protocol. It is important that academic advisors are familiar with the protocol for their institution: what information is required to be reported, (as well as how, when and to whom the information should be reported) so that follow-up, as necessary and appropriate, may take place.
- Know their resources and appropriate referrals. Both the campus and community surrounding the campus may be included in this resource list. The specific names of the offices may differ, but the services provided will most likely include things such as victim/survivor advocacy, access to counseling, survivor support groups, and legal guidance or services/support.
When disclosure from a student survivor occurs, it is recommended that the academic advisor do the following:
- Thank the student for telling them about this situation and trusting enough in the relationship to share this information.
- Listen to the student. Actively listen and engage with the student in that moment. Be fully present and mindful of the interaction.
- Believe the student. According to Sable, Danis, Mauzy, and Gallagher (2006), one of the three main barriers to reporting sexual assault was fear of not being believed. Academic advisors can assuage this fear by the manner in which they initially develop relationships with students and certainly by the way in which they respond to student disclosures.
- Advocate on behalf of the student, if and when they desire. Provide control of the situation to the student. The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence (n.d.) reports that only 16% of rapes are reported to the police and of those who did not report to the police, 43% of them indicated they did not do so because of a belief that nothing could be done about the situation. In many academic situations, advisors advocate for students and student success. This is a scenario where student advocacy is critical. Advisors should follow the preference of the student survivor, and if the student agrees to the advisor’s assistance, take the opportunity to be tremendous advocates for their student survivors.
- Utilize supportive language that is non-judgmental in nature. Reassure the student that what occurred is not their fault. Avoid victim blaming comments, phrases, or lines of inquiry. Academic advisors should provide a safe environment that is conducive to non-threatening conversation. If student survivors are disclosing this information to advisors, it is likely this environment is already in existence, but all efforts should be made to maintain and foster such an environment.
- Define boundaries. It is important to clearly define the advisor role and responsibilities, including reporting, in this situation. It is crucial that students understand what information they are disclosing will be shared, with whom, and how, so the student can maintain trust with the academic advisor.
- Refer to appropriate medical personnel. Depending on the timing of the disclosure, this may include helping the survivor receive medical attention and working to preserve evidence. This may also include the suggestion and referral to talk with someone trained to help survivors of sexual assault. Offer to go with them if they are willing but hesitant.
- Follow up with the student. After the student has disclosed this information to the advisor, the recommendation is that the advisor follows up with the student in the communication mode frequently utilized at and approved by their institution. This additional interaction will reinforce the caring relationship already established.
As mentioned previously, the historical precedent and trends of sexual violence make it also likely that those in the advising profession have personal history with sexual violence and sexual assault. Another important consideration for those working with student survivors is their own wellbeing and self-care during and after student disclosure, both for those with and without this history of sexual violence in their past.
Self-care and wellbeing considerations for the academic advisors working with these student survivors include:
- Give space—emotional and mental space—to yourself to individually process the disclosure and conversation afterwards. For those with historical background of sexual violence, these conversations may be emotionally triggering. Allow that space to reflect, process, and decompress from the conversation and emotions elicited.
- Utilize relaxation techniques. Simply pausing to become mindful of the manner in which one is breathing can assist in helping with relaxation. Slow and deep breaths can actually counteract the body’s fight or flight stress response. Additionally, certain stretching exercises can have a similar relaxing effect on your body.
- Utilize resources as appropriate. Academic advisors are fantastic at referring students to necessary and relevant resources. It may, however, be necessary for advisors to take some of their own advice and utilize similarly appropriate resources, especially when there are emotionally triggering situations. The specific names of the offices may differ, but many institutions offer services such as employee counseling and support groups of various kinds. These types of services can assist advisors in working through and processing feelings from those emotionally challenging student interactions.
- Understand advisor limitations. Those within the academic advising profession tend to have helping and giving personalities. However, it is important to understand both advisor boundaries and limitations. While advisors may offer to support student survivors through their journey, advisors cannot take the journey for the student. It is important to know and understand when an advisor has done all that can be done on a student’s behalf.
The laws in place to protect students have been and are helpful. However, it will take multitudes of individuals working diligently and collectively to combat this issue. Sexual assault prevention programs are in place on many campuses in an effort to increase awareness and engagement of college students, faculty, academic advisors, and other support personnel. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2016) evaluates programs for effectiveness in prevention of sexual violence perpetration and lists several programs as effective and promising for prevention of sexual violence. Implementation of programs such as these intended to change the social norms of and beliefs surrounding sexual violence are crucial to changing this problem.
Due to the unique relationship forged between advisors and students, until the culture of sexual violence ends, academic advisors will continue to play a crucial role at the front line as confidants and advocates for student survivors.
Senior Academic Advisor II
Department of Entomology/College of Agriculture & Life Science
Texas A&M University
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Sexual violence: Prevention strategies. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/sexualviolence/prevention.html
Clery Center. (n.d.). Summary of the Jeanne Clery act. Retrieved from http://clerycenter.org/summary-jeanne-clery-act
National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. (2012). Sexual violence: Facts at a glance. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/SV-DataSheet-a.pdf
National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. (n.d.). Sexual Assault Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.ncdsv.org/images/SexualAssaultStatistics.pdf
Sable, M. R., Danis, F., Mauzy, D. L., Gallagher, S. K. (2006). Barriers to reporting sexual assault for women and men: Perspectives of college students. Journal of American College Health. 55(3), 157-162.
The World Health Organization. (2002). Sexual violence. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/world_report/factsheets/en/sexualviolencefacts.pdf?ua=1
Title IX. (n.d.). Sexual Harassment. Retrieved from http://www.titleix.info/10-Key-Areas-of-Title-IX/Sexual-Harassment.aspx
Additional Suggested Resources:
Greendot. (n.d.). Ending violence one greet dot at a time. Retrieved from http://livethegreendot.com/
Cite this article using APA style as: Hapes, R. (2017, June). Sexual violence: Preparing academic advisors to respond and advocate. Academic Advising Today, 40(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]