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UNC researchers: More study needed on campus sexual misconduct policies

As federal education officials consider revising current policies to help address sexual misconduct on college campuses, a group of UNC researchers say before any new rules are handed down, more rigorous study is needed to determine what is working and where further improvements are warranted.

The researchers’ recommendations will be published in November in a special issue of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence: The role of public policies in preventing intimate partner violence, teen dating violence, and sexual violence. The paper was produced through the interdisciplinary initiative, the UNC Gender-Based Violence Research Group, and was co-authored by social work Ph.D. students LB Klein, Laurie Graham and Premela Deck and students, alumni and faculty from the UNC School of Public Health.

Klein, the paper’s lead author, said the colleagues decided to explore the issue of campus sexual misconduct because of ongoing debates over whether current federal policies that guide colleges and universities go too far or not far enough. In recent weeks, changes have been proposed that among other things would narrow the definition of sexual harassment, limit college and university investigations to incidents that only occur on campus and allow schools to decide the standard of evidence to apply to allegations of sexual misconduct.

“There’s been a lot of talk, especially with the changes in administration, that the previous administration produced a system that has failed,” Klein explained. “But as researchers, the first thing we thought was, ‘OK how is the Department of Education measuring that it’s failed, and what data can we use to make that decision? We propose a more data-driven process.”

Although colleges and universities are required to submit the number of sexual assault reports received on their campuses each year to federal authorities, any other comprehensive data on sexual assault may or may not be collected and if gathered, is not required to be shared, Klein said. Without more detailed information, it is difficult to chart the impact of federal policies, she added.

However, the UNC researchers see the current climate as an opportunity to rigorously examine how and what campuses are doing to prevent sexual assault. Central to this focus is the recommendation that a national repository be created for collecting and evaluating data on campus sexual assault, Klein said.

Such a system would allow institutions to compare data and to more fully examine the effectiveness of their efforts to prevent sexual assault. Analysis of such data could also go a long way in addressing concerns from those who say sexual assault victims are not supported enough on college campuses and from others who believe that the rights of accused students are often violated, Klein said.

“Without really having data that says how the policies are working in practice, we can’t really make a conclusion that they aren’t working,” Klein said. “So, if we don’t know on a large scale how effective previous and current policies are, then all we’re left with is an anecdote.”

The UNC colleagues have also suggested that once a national data collection system exists, researchers should work closely with policy experts and state and national anti-sexual violence coalitions to ensure that relevant research findings, including information on evidence-based interventions, are translated and shared widely with practitioners and policymakers working to strengthen sexual misconduct policies.