Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Campus Climate Surveys and the "Information Problem"

Education surveys are nothing new. In fact, the Department of Education was established in 1867 to collect "such statistics and facts … as shall … promote the cause of education throughout the United States."1 In his 1860 education treatise, Herbert Spencer said that asking people how they "think, feel, and act under given circumstances" to solve social problems was a self-evident conclusion: "Society is made up of individuals … and therefore, in individual actions only can be found the solutions of social phenomena."2

Fast forward to the 21st century and schools are using student surveys to help them address the epidemic of sexual assault affecting college women. In a previous post we talked about the University of Montana's "rape-tolerant campus" and its agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to take steps to change the campus climate.

On October 29, 2013, the University of Montana used Amazon gift cards to entice students to complete an annual safe campus survey on their knowledge, attitudes, program use, and experiences. The survey will help UM develop "effective programs and [create] positive change in sexual and interpersonal violence," said UM psychology professor Christine Fiore. This annual survey is part of the "blueprint" for Title IX compliance that resulted from UM's settlement agreement with the ED. The blueprint also includes educating students, faculty, and staff on what is sexual misconduct and how to file complaints.

Other investigations by the ED's Office of Civil Rights call for annual student surveys. The State University of New York reached a settlement agreement with ED on October 31, 2013, and will begin conducting annual campus climate assessments to help improve sexual misconduct policies and procedures at its twenty-nine campuses. In May 2013, the Yale News reported that the school's second "campus climate assessment" found, based on feedback from more than 300 students, it was making progress in addressing sexual misconduct issues.

In addition to a federal investigation, there is the risk of expensive Title IX liability to victims. When schools are faced with six- and seven-figure settlements, why does it take a federal investigation to get to the root of the problem? One possible explanation is what legal scholar Nancy Chi Cantalupo calls an "information problem" about sexual assault and how that impacts a school's reputation for safety.

According to Cantalupo, many schools are reluctant to confront the problem of sexual violence precisely because helping victims and punishing perpetrators requires reporting. Increased reporting drives crime statistics up and makes the school look like a dangerous place to send your children. On the other hand, when victims are discouraged from reporting crimes statistics go down, making the school look safer. Thus, schools have an incentive to discourage reporting to protect their reputations.

However, sociologists and criminologists who study campus violence suggest that ignoring the problem feeds a rape-tolerant culture that leads to higher rates of sexual assault.3 Fortunately, these tragic consequences are turning into stricter enforcement and grassroots action: federal complaints by sexual assault victims are increasing, Title IX enforcement is being taken more seriously,4 and student organizations like Know Your IX are focusing national attention on the problem.

Cantalupo argues that annual student surveys provide more accurate information on the incidence of sexual violence, which helps schools turn their policies, procedures, and education programs into meaningful change. Therefore, Cantalupo recommends that all schools require students to respond to a campus climate survey before they can graduate or register for classes.

Tucker Reed has filed two federal complaints over the University of Southern California's handling of her sexual assault complaint. She agrees that exit surveys of graduating seniors would not only be a better way to find out how many students were sexually assaulted while in college, but could also "pinpoint which programs are working and which aren't."

Student surveys provide a direct source of data that inform a school's Campus SaVE Act education programs, and confront the sexual assault problem with a targeted approach to reducing the rate of sexual violence in all schools, not just those featured in the latest headlines for another federal investigation.

1. The History and Origins of Survey Items for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Report of the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative (2011).
2. Spencer, H. Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical, p. 70 (London: D. Appleton and Company 1860).
3. Cantalupo, N. Burying Our Heads in the Sand: Lack of Knowledge, Knowledge Avoidance, and the Persistent Problem of Campus Peer Sexual Violence (2011) 43 Loyola Univ. Chicago L.J. 205, 218.
4. Cantalupo says, "In fiscal year 2009, OCR had 582 full-time staffers—fewer than at any time since its creation. And it received 6,364 complaints, an increase of 27% since 2002," citing Lax Enforcement of Title IX in Campus Sexual Assault Cases: Feeble Watchdog Leaves Students at Risk, Critics Say, Center For Public Integrity (Feb. 25, 2010).

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