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Setting standards: Student-led research finds inconsistent access to sexual assault policies, consent definitions across U.S. colleges, universities 

Although most U.S. colleges and universities publicize sexual assault policies and consent definitions on their schools’ websites, a recent UNC study found that small public schools, private schools, and those with majority male student populations were less likely to provide or maintain similar information publicly.

Given that sexual assault on college and university campuses continues to be a pervasive problem, findings from the study suggest that many schools could strengthen their conduct standards by more clearly communicating sexual assault policies and consent definitions. Such efforts, the researchers concluded, could help to better inform and support students, increase sexual assault reporting, and promote a safer school environment.

“For our investigation, we wanted to know how easily and successfully students, faculty, and staff can find their college or university’s policy and how their school defines sexual consent,” said Laurie Graham, a Ph.D. student in the School of Social Work and the study’s principal investigator. “The focus was important because how a campus responds can affect whether people report a sexual assault or not. Even how sexual consent is described can have implications for how people view their own experiences.”

The research study, which was published online recently in the Journal of School Violence, was supported by the UNC Center for Injury Prevention and conducted by the Gender-Based Violence Research Groupan interdisciplinary team that formed three years ago and comprised of students, faculty and staff from the UNC School of Social Work, Gillings School of Global Public Health, RTI International Military and Family Risk Behavior Research Program in Research Triangle Park and other local researchers and practitioners.

The article is the first from the study team, which conducted a nationally representative review of websites for 995 schools with four-year undergraduate programs. The study, which included historically black colleges and universities and tribal institutions, focused on schools that receive federal funding because these campuses are mandated to have sexual assault policies in place. The study, researchers agreed, is a first step toward exploring whether sexual assault policies and consent definitions help to prevent sexual assault on college campuses.

Nationally, campus sexual assault has been identified as a significant social problem. According to a 2015 report from the Association of American Universities, an estimated 26.1 percent of undergraduate women and 6.1 percent of undergraduate men experience sexual assault “by physical force, threats of physical force or incapacitation,” by their senior year.
For their study, the UNC research team explored whether school characteristics, such as public versus private and student population size, are associated with having or not having sexual assault policies and consent definitions publicly accessible online.

Results showed that most schools, or 93 percent, had a sexual assault policy and 87.6 percent had consent definitions that were retrievable from online campus websites. Public schools and schools with greater than 5,000 enrolled students were more likely to have a policy and consent definition compared to private and smaller schools.

In addition, the study found that schools with a minority of female students were less likely than those with a higher percentage of female students to have such policies and definitions. Moreover, nearly 40 percent of majority male schools did not have a publicly accessible consent definition online.

“One of the things we recognized is that it takes a lot of time, effort, and resources to pull people together to agree on and pass a new policy, so smaller institutions might be at a disadvantage for doing so,” Graham said.

Of the total school websites reviewed, UNC researchers further analyzed the content of consent definitions at 100 schools and found that information varied considerably in details and comprehensiveness by school. About 12 percent had limited definitions, while 75 percent defined consent more comprehensively. Some common themes emerged, including around physical incapacitation, incapacitation due to drugs and alcohol and age of consent. Most definitions asserted that sexual consent could not be given when there is “force, incapacitation, and coercion.”

“A lot of the definitions talked more about what the absence of consent looked like rather than what active consent looked like,” Graham said. “How can someone actively consent and what does the presence of consent look like?”

Having such polices in place are important for demonstrating an institution’s commitment to eliminating sexual assault, said School of Social Work professor Rebecca Macy, whose research focuses on family violence, interpersonal violence, and violence prevention. However, because the federal government has not been clear about what all campuses should include, most colleges and universities are relying on various processes to ensure that students are safe, she said.

“These policies are really critical because that’s the standard by which students will be expelled from universities or protected or not protected on campuses,” said Macy, a co-author of the study. “The challenge is there is no one single set upon agreed policy at least not in North Carolina. That means that every university is doing this differently so how they envision consent is kind of the core argument and how they apply these policies, that’s going to be something that the courts are going to have to work out.”

The study co-authors also included MSW/MPH dual degree student Erin Magee; Gillings School of Global Public Health MPH students Sarah Treves-Kagan and Stephanie DeLong, associate dean for research Sandra Martin, research associate professor Michael Bowling and research associate professor Beth Moracco, and RTI senior public health scientist Olivia Ashley.