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Campus Sexual Assault — What Parents Need to Know

Jo Calhoun

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As we update this article on October 1, 2018, in the midst of emotional public conversation resulting from testimony about sexual assault during the Senate confirmation hearing of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, it seemed helpful to share resources for parents looking for guidance about how to talk to children, teens and college students about safe and respectful sexual behavior, and in particular consent:

Advocates for Youth: Parents' Sex Ed Center
How to talk to young people about the Kavanaugh story (from NPR)

We also recommend a humorous video from Blue Seat Studios that uses stick figures and a drinking tea analogy to illustrate the importance of consent in sexual situations (including when a person may have previously consented, or when a person is unconscious). Watch and share "Consent: It's Simple as Tea."

By Patricia Helton and Jo Calhoun

Of all the fears we may have about our college students' safety, sexual assault ranks near the top. Given recent national news, we understandably worry about our daughters (primarily) becoming victims of assault or our sons (primarily) being accused of committing it.

Research indicates that college-aged adults are at increased risk of sexual violence. Age is a better predictor of risk than college attendance — while college women are at three times the risk of all women, non-college women of the same age are at four times the risk. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), “11.2% of all students [both graduate and undergraduate] experience rape or sexual assault."

Responding to sexual assault on campus is a huge challenge for colleges and universities. They are responsible for student safety, and also for protecting students’ rights to due process, complying with Federal regulations (most notably Title IX), and following their own written policies and procedures.

Incidents of sexual assault are life-changing. Parents need to be informed.

What is Title IX?

According to Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Although we often associate Title IX with the emergence of women’s athletics, it applies to all educational programs and activities and the basic right of students to be free from sexual harassment or violence, on and off campus.

The Federal government has issued a series of letters to help schools comply with Title IX. Most recently, in September 2017, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a new “Dear Colleague” letter and “Q&A on Campus Sexual Misconduct” that retracted previous “Dear Colleague” letters and recommendations. If it sounds confusing, it’s because it is! Nevertheless, if you are a college parent, it’s worth taking the time to read these documents. Even better, go to the website of your student’s school and review its policies on Title IX and sexual assault prevention and response.

What parents should understand

1. You won't automatically be notified about student conduct issues.

FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, assures the privacy of student records, including conduct records. Although there are exceptions to this rule, parents should not assume they'll be notified if their student is the alleged victim or perpetrator of sexual assault.

For this reason, it's key to talk with your student before a time of crisis. Let them know that, if they are ever involved in a conduct violation, you expect to hear from them immediately and you will, without question, provide ongoing support and guidance.

2. Campus sexual assault cases often hinge on the definition of “consent.”

That is, both parties’ agreement and permission to proceed with a sexual act. The use of alcohol or other substances diminishes students’ ability to rationally give consent. And given the private nature of sexual behavior, cases sometimes turn into “he said, she said” situations.

Talk to your student about their understanding of consent (and how it may differ from the legal definition). What education has there been on campus to help students develop a common vocabulary around consent?

3. Schools have leeway when handling student conduct violations, but must follow their published policies.
4. Campus sexual assault investigations and related conduct hearings proceed relatively quickly.

They typically take from one to six months following a complaint, even if a related criminal charge is pending.

Checklist for parents

First, whether your child is the alleged victim or the alleged respondent perpetrator:
  • Clarify their options for safety on campus. Do they need to be moved to a safe place?
  • Request an advocate for your student (either from a sexual assault response team or from the division of Student Affairs). All students involved need to understand institutional policies that affect them.
  • Find out what counseling is available to your student.
  • Given the stress of the situation, look at options for reducing your student’s course load or taking a leave of absence.
  • Review the school’s policies on student conduct (search for the Student Handbook or catalog on the website).
If your student is the alleged victim:

If your student reports a sexual assault to you right after it occurs, encourage them to go to the hospital immediately (without cleaning up or changing clothes) to have a sexual assault forensic exam (rape kit) completed. Hospitals are increasingly sensitive to victims of sexual assault and generally provide supportive staff members to help victims through a traumatic time.

It's common, though, for students to delay reporting an assault. Trauma impacts a person’s ability to think clearly. Students may deny what happened to them, try to put it behind them without getting help, or question their own role in the assault. If your student delays reporting an incident for weeks or months, validate their experience and their feelings and encourage them to get help from a campus sexual assault response team or the division of Student Affairs. Trained staff members can help them sort through their options and understand reporting procedures.

Campus staff may not discourage students from also reporting the incident to the police. It’s important for students and their families to understand all of the options, including filing criminal charges.

If your student chooses to bring a complaint through the campus judicial system, if possible, try to come to campus to support them during the hearing process. By policy, parents usually aren't allowed to attend such hearings, but having you close at hand will boost your student's courage and confidence.

If your student is the alleged perpetrator:

Consult a lawyer. It’s crucial that your student understand the potential consequences of a campus conduct hearing and/or a criminal charge. Most colleges allow lawyers to attend conduct hearings, but only as non-participating observers.

Be prepared for possible disruption of your student’s academic program. Schools must balance the rights of individual students with the safety of the entire student body. If your student is evaluated to be a potential threat to the safety of other students, they may be suspended from campus at least until the outcome of a conduct hearing. (See “Consult a lawyer” above.)


Additional resources:
  • Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN):
  • The National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
  • John Krakauer’s best-selling work, Missoula (2015), explores a number of highly publicized cases involving athletes at the University of Montana but it could have been written about any college. Though somewhat sensationalized, the book does a good job of painting a picture of the complex issues surrounding campus sexual assault.


Co-author Dr. Patricia Helton received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. She has over 25 years of experience in student affairs and currently serves as Regional Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.


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Jo Calhoun worked in Student Affairs for over 30 years at institutions including Grinnell College in Iowa, the State University of New York at Binghamton, and the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver. Her specializations include first year programs, academic advising, career services and parent relations.
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