This fall, Minnesota colleges and universities will be under more pressure than ever to amp up efforts to prevent sexual assault on campus.
For the first time, they’ll have to report publicly how many complaints they investigate and how many cases actually result in disciplinary action, under a new state law that takes effect Aug. 1.
The law, which lays out a series of new rules for handling sexual misconduct complaints, is one reason that hundreds of college officials will be gathering in St. Paul this week for Minnesota’s first Campus Sexual Violence Prevention Summit.
The conference, Thursday and Friday at Metro State University, is designed to help college staffers who increasingly find themselves on the front lines in the battle against campus rape.
“Our goal is to change the environment and reduce the number of students who are harmed by sexual violence,” said Yvonne Cournoyer, one of the organizers, who is the prevention program manager at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Change at multiple levels
Like it or not, colleges are obligated under federal law to investigate reports of sexual misconduct on their turf.
The point of the summit, Cournoyer says, is to give colleges the tools they need to better handle the challenge.
The workshops include: “Low-cost ways to integrate sexual violence prevention on your campus,” “Best practices for investigating sexual assault,” and the “Neurobiology of trauma” — a lesson in how sexual violence can affect victims’ behavior.
Cournoyer said she recognizes that for many college officials, dealing with sexual assault is just a small part of their jobs. But they can — and should — make campus safety a priority, she said.
“The number one thing to know is that prevention has to be sort of embedded in the campus to be really effective,” she said.
“Too often, we talk about how does somebody prevent themselves from being sexually assaulted. Instead, we need to look at community accountability and the community role in creating a protected environment where students aren’t at risk for being sexually assaulted.”
On college campuses, she said, that can include programs like bystander intervention training, which encourages students to speak out if they see someone behaving inappropriately.
“One of the things we know is that sexual assault exists along a continuum of behaviors,” including sexual harassment and stalking, Cournoyer said.
“Bystander training programs change the climate, where people are calling each other out on those behaviors. It sends a message that we don’t accept that here.
“We’re addressing a pretty complex social issue,” she added. “We need to create a community where we hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior.”