Lawmakers, Educators Target Sexual Assault On Campus

As the White House presses colleges to fight sexual assault, Senator Claire McCaskill explains her stand on the issue. The University of Kentucky's Rhonda Henry shares what has worked on that campus.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to start our program today with an issue that has been in the news of late, but it has been on the minds of many college students and their families long before that. And that issue is sexual assault on college campuses. The Department of Justice says 1 in 5 women has been sexually assaulted while in college. So the Obama administration is out with new guidelines for colleges about how to stop this behavior.

In a few minutes, we will hear from Rhonda Henry of the University of Kentucky on how their program teaches bystanders to intervene. But first, we are joined by United States Senator Claire McCaskill. She is a Democrat from Missouri. She spent a lot of time working on the issue of sexual violence on campus and in other areas. And she's with us now from her office in Washington, D.C. Senator McCaskill, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I think many people might know of your work combating sexual violence in the military. That has gotten a lot of attention in recent months. Now you've turned to the issue of college campuses. Can I ask what drew your attention to this in the first place?

MCCASKILL: Well, I spent years in the courtroom as a sexual assault prosecutor, so I understand this crime. I understand the complexities. And I, most of all, understand how critically important it is to get victim support and services to the victim in a way that encourages her to come forward out of the shadows at the most traumatic moment of her life. And so it's a natural in that there's many similarities between the problems that we encountered in the military and the problems that we see on college campuses. And it also probably has something to do with the fact that I have two daughters that are around the age of college.

MARTIN: Just briefly - 'cause this is obviously a very complex subject and you've delved into it. You know, you dug very deeply into it. Can you just give me one or two examples of where you feel like the college campus experience is similar to the issue - as you have been studying it - in the military? Because a lot of people think that part of the issue with the military is it's a closed environment. There are very, very few women in the military serving. I mean, only - what - 11 or 12 percent of active duty service members are female. Very different on college campuses where, in some cases, women are the majority. So tell me a little bit more about what you see the similarities as being.

MCCASKILL: Well, they're both closed environments in that there is a great deal of information that is shared within this closed environment, which means that your peers all find out. And there is fear that there will be repercussions, retaliation, that you will be marginalized if you come forward. So the closed nature of both a military base and a college campus is similar.

The other thing is that these young people, at the ages of 17, 18, 19 years old, are coming into a new environment where they expect safety. And where they are presented with a whole new system of rules and regulations or, in some instances, none. Going from a home where they were - maybe had supervision to an environment where there is some requirements - obviously, in the military - about where you are and what you're doing. But there - you are still independent for the first time in your life.

So I think those things all - and the fact that it's complex. There is dual jurisdiction in both cases in that, depending on where the assault occurs, you could have the military justice system or the civilian justice system that could weigh in. And also on a university campus, you could have the university police or the municipal police. So we have law enforcement coordination issues, also.

MARTIN: So what are some of the things that you want to do about it? We noted that the White House has released some guidelines to increase the pressure on universities to move more aggressively on this issue. One of the recommendations is to conduct anonymous surveys about sexual assault cases, to adopt some policies that have been considered successful at other universities. We're going to hear more about that in a few minutes. What are some of the thing - and to better ensure that reports were made confidential - but what are some of the things that you think are most important? Could you give us one or two things that you think would make a significant difference?

MCCASKILL: I think most important is a process and system where at the point of report, the victim has the option of confidentiality. But as important, a forensic interview that supports her, rather than accuses her - that allows her to give a factual version of what occurred, as to what she remembers, without making her feel like she's got to pass some test to be believable.

And then the second piece of that is acknowledging that Title IX is never going to hold perpetrators accountable criminally. And the way victims are going to feel empowered is believing something might happen if they come forward. So we've got to do a better job linking law enforcement on campuses with local law enforcement and local prosecutors 'cause the federal government has no jurisdiction to criminally prosecute these rape cases on college campuses - none. So this has to be a local prosecutor-driven process. And we've got to pull them in. And hopefully do some things that would mandate universities to work more closely and carefully with local law enforcement on these incidents.

MARTIN: That was Senator Claire McCaskill. She's a Democrat of Missouri. She's been working very extensively on this issue. And she joined us from her office in Washington, D.C. Senator McCaskill, thanks for speaking with us.

MCCASKILL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: We hope we'll speak again as this issue proceeds.

MCCASKILL: I look forward to it. Thank you.

MARTIN: Now we're joined by Rhonda Henry. She's acting director of the University of Kentucky's Violence Intervention and Prevention Center, with us from member station WUKY, which is in Lexington, Kentucky. And the program at her university has been held up as a model by the White House and others. So, Rhonda Henry, thanks for joining us. Give us an example, first of all, of the scope of the issue, if you would, from your campus.

RHONDA HENRY: Certainly. Thank you for having me on today, Michel. You know, we certainly see clients coming in every day who have experienced some form of interpersonal violence. And we certainly see sexual violence on a regular basis, unfortunately. We do think that we've got some components that we've put in place within our programming to respond to that and to work on the prevention side, as well. But we see the reality, unfortunately, coming in all the time. And I don't think our college campus is any different than any other. We know that those risk factors are there.

MARTIN: And what are some of those risk factors? I mean, why is this such a prevalent issue? I mean, is it...

HENRY: Certainly.

MARTIN: Do you think it's alcohol? I mean, do you think that alcohol is part of it? Do you think it's that some young people come to campus not understanding what's right and wrong? I mean, that they don't understand that it's - I mean, do you think it's just as simple as some students simply do not understand that it is not acceptable to force yourself on people - women, in particular - who do not welcome your advances. Or if somebody's so drunk that they can't give consent - that some kids think that's still OK? I mean, do you think - what is the issue here?

HENRY: Well, I definitely think that there is a connection between sexual violence and substance use and abuse. I don't think it is a causal relationship, but I think that it - we definitely see that substance use lowers inhibitions. So it's not going to turn someone who doesn't have maybe violent or abusive tendencies and their personalities. It's not going to turn them into that. But it's going to lower inhibitions and maybe impair decision-making, just like it would in any other type of situation we might be in.

On the side of the victim, it may also impair their ability to notice red flags maybe earlier on, to, you know, be able to make safety plans in the moment or to follow through with, you know, planning to go home with friends. And once, you know, alcohol or other drugs gets involved it makes decision making a little more impaired. I certainly, like I said, don't think there's a causal relationship, but I think it's part of the complexity of it.

I think that - I think sometimes there are people who don't realize that the activities they're perpetrating against someone else are crossing the line and don't really understand consent. But I think most of the time, they do and push along anyway. You know, a lot of times we'll hear that idea of, you know, turning a no into a yes. You know, being able to push someone along or try to talk them into doing something that maybe they initially didn't want to do. And really helping people understand the true meaning of consent. You know, and that consent is not just - it's not just fighting back or not fighting back. It's also being an active participant and wanting to participate in that activity, as well.

MARTIN: So tell me a bit more about this bystander training that we were talking about here.

HENRY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: We have about three minutes. And I understand it's a really - something that you work a lot on. But give us - give us kind of the executive summary version, if you would.

HENRY: Certainly. Well, the Green Dot program is a comprehensive primary prevention strategy that focuses on the power of the bystander to help make individual and social change. So what - the way that we approach that and the way we, you know, kind of go into those trainings is we have a skill-building approach to enable people to safely intervene in red-flag situations. You know, the last thing we want to do is have someone get involved, trying to help, and put someone else at risk or raise the level of, you know, dangerousness that's going on. So we do a lot of work with people about understanding everything from their own personality style and what is a way to intervene that we feel comfortable for them. But also kind of judging who else is around. Are there other support people that they may be able to delegate or bring in to help with the situation? They may be able to distract the person from what's going on. Or depending on what their relationship is, potentially, with the people involved, they may feel like they can directly go into a situation. So...

MARTIN: Is this something - forgive me for interrupting. We have about two minutes left. How - is this something that all students participate in?

HENRY: No.

MARTIN: Or is this something that only student leaders participate in? Because it seems to me that a lot of these situations that we hear about happen at off-campus parties and things of that sort. I mean, it's true that some of the things happen kind of on-campus. But a lot of these situations that have come to light, particularly some of the ones that turned violent, are situations that happened that off-campus parties where I don't think the student body president is happening to be standing there. So how does this...

HENRY: Very true.

MARTIN: ...in effect, the - how does - how do you get the entire student body - people who are most likely to be involved in this - to participate?

HENRY: Certainly. We - you know, unfortunately, we don't have the opportunity to talk with every person on campus who comes through. And so we've got sort of a multi-prong approach. One is looking at those leaders - like you said, people who are in positions of leadership, formally or informally, you know, within their social circle. But that's - that can't be the only place that we go to. So we also look for other ways to tie this into either current academic programs that are going on or other social groups that are already formed. And to be able to really spread that message that it's everybody's issue. So it's not just, you know, a Greek organization's president who's got to have this knowledge and move forward. It's everyone. It's not just a social club's president or leadership, but that everyone has to be involved in that.

MARTIN: OK.

HENRY: And we're constantly looking for those opportunities to get that information out to a more diverse group of people.

MARTIN: And finally, what kind of reaction are you getting from the students? Not just your student body president - leadership people, but your student population overall? What kind of reaction are you getting to this kind of training?

HENRY: We have a really positive response to this and I think one of the main reasons is because it's manageable. We're not asking them to go out and change the entire campus alone. We're asking them to do what they're already doing - work in their peer groups. You know, influence the people that they're around. Make a positive impact in their life as a live it on a day-to-day basis because it can't just be the chief of police or someone from my office or someone from the Dean of Students making those changes. We have our own roles in this. But it's that day-to-day within social interactions and really empowering them to know they can make a difference.

MARTIN: Rhonda Henry is acting director of the University of Kentucky's Violence Intervention and Prevention Center. Thank you so much for joining us, Rhonda Henry.

HENRY: Thank you so much.

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