How to (Really) Prevent Sex Assault on Campus

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Members of the University of New Hampshire community participate in SHARPP's annual Anti-Violence Rally & Walk, 2016. Photo by Connie DiSanto

Members of the University of New Hampshire community participate in SHARPP’s annual Anti-Violence Rally & Walk, 2016. Photo by Connie DiSanto


When selecting a college from which to announce a new sexual assault awareness campaign in 2011, the White House had an easy choice.

Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan both arrived in Durham, N.H., the New England town that’s home to the University of New Hampshire’s flagship campus, to kick off Not Alone.

The year prior, Biden hosted three UNH professors for a reception at his Delaware home, and in a 42-minute speech on campus, the former senator praised them for their work: “You guys are doing it right. You’re the model for the country,” said Biden, who introduced the Violence Against Women Act in 1990.

“I wish all colleges had a little more UNH Wildcat in them.”

Renowned among policy wonks and feminists alike for its bystander intervention program, its research institute on violence against women, and its independently-funded rape prevention and crisis center, UNH is an undisputed leader in ending sexual assault on campus. But this public school with 12,500 undergrads wasn’t always ahead of the curve.

In February 1987, three upperclassmen repeatedly had sex with an intoxicated freshman female in her dorm, Stoke Hall — a story that matches contemporary accounts about rapes at the University of Montana at Missoula, Florida State University and many more schools. What’s different about UNH is that faculty and students responded to that crisis as an opportunity to eradicate sexual violence.

As a result, it’s a standout amongst institutions of higher learning.

A Strong Ethic

Over three bitterly cold days this February, exactly 29 years after the Stoke Hall incident, NationSwell spoke with Wildcats on campus about what encourages UNH students to intervene if a sexual assault looks imminent. Students and faculty report that, over time, the gradual changes to campus culture snowballed into a strong ethic of condemning rape when classmates notice its signs.

But UNH still isn’t satisfied with those results, citing the 23 students who reported being raped in 2014, according to federal data. To maintain its reputation as a leader, the school continues to better its campus-wide outreach to prevent sexual assault.

With, as of now, 175 open federal investigations into colleges’ compliance with Title IX (the federal law on gender discrimination), universities nationwide are introducing speeches that read like disclaimers, lengthy consent policies and online sex ed courses — many developed by a cottage industry to keep schools in compliance with the law.

These additions may stave off government investigators, but they haven’t necessarily been proven to keep students safe, says Jane Stapleton, co-director of UNH’s Prevention Innovations Research Center (PIRC) which studies ways to end gender-based violence, including sexual assault, relationship abuse and stalking, and is located on the college’s campus.

At UNH, “we don’t subscribe to that. That is not what we’re about,” she declares; instead, the school has developed evidence-based solutions that are proven to stop rape.

“Whenever someone says [their prevention education is] evidence-based, I say, ‘Show me the evidence,” Stapleton adds. “Let’s see the studies.”Stapleton emphasizes results because she’s seen the ugly damage sexual assault can do. In 1987, as a graduate student in sociology, she watched the Stoke Hall incident unfold in the press and a public tribunal held over four evenings in a 170-seat lecture hall.

At the open hearing, all three men were cleared of sexual assault charges. (Two of the three were suspended for six months on related charges, and both later pled guilty to misdemeanor sexual assault in criminal court.) After the university’s decision, vocal confrontations broke out on the wooded, snow-carpeted campus, including a mass of protestors forcefully occupying the dean’s office, hanging a “Help Wanted” sign from a flagpole, which functioned as both a joke about replacing the dean and a serious cry for administrators to recognize the problems.

When the students refused to vacate the office, 11 Wildcats were arrested, according to news reports at the time.

Seething Anger

Witnessing the seething anger on campus, Gordon Haaland, then university president, penned an apologetic letter to the student body just before summer break, saying he’d return to campus “ready to examine our moral behavior.”

The following fall, administrators presented a plan to address sexual assault, the first steps that would grow into UNH’s current success. Haaland, administered a campus climate survey, which found that within the first six months of the 1987-88 school year, 37 percent of UNH’s women experienced unwanted sexual contact and 10 percent were raped, and males reported 11 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

Haaland also hired a full-time rape services coordinator, who beefed up the immediate services available to survivors, supplementing an underground, grassroots effort started by UNH faculty and staff a decade prior in 1978, according to current staff. That program would grow into SHARPP (Sexual Harassment & Rape Prevention Program), one of the only rape crisis centers located on a college campus that receives independent funding. It also has the distinction of being among the earliest, says Amy Culp, its current director. In the mid-1970s, “there was a big movement [against] domestic violence.”

Sexual assault didn’t come into the scene really until the early 90s,” she notes, meaning that SHARPP had a two-decade head start, allowing it to mature into the seven full-time staff (including one coordinator for male victims) and 90 volunteers it has today.

For five years, Stapleton provided direct services for rape survivors at SHARPP, including a yearlong stint as its director, before transitioning into research, where she collaborated with three colleagues (Victoria Banyard, Mary Moynihan and Elizabeth Plante, another former SHARPP director), who were using a 2002 National Institute of Justice grant to independently test a new prevention program, Bringing in the Bystander, on UNH’s student body.

The model’s experimental trial at UNH found that students who received three 90-minute training sessions showed significant increases in their willingness to intervene. “Perceived confidence goes up. We do see shifts in their attitudes in terms of, ‘I have a responsibility. I feel like I have a role to play in addressing these issues on my campus,’” says Banyard, a researcher at PIRC.

After a two-month check-in, students had also reported more instances where they intervened, although “what’s trickier is figuring out how to link that to reported rates of assault,” Banyard says. Because only a handful of survivors bring their case to university administrators or police, sexual assault is “a hidden crime,” making it tough to measure changes without an established baseline, she adds.

Rigorously Evaluated

Bringing in the Bystander would be the first rigorously evaluated prevention program on campus — eventually informing today’s “You Can Help” campaign, which is run independently by SHARPP. Drawing on its best elements, as well as those from several other renowned prevention programs (including the athlete-centric Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) and the more emotional Green Dot, a program developed at the University of Kentucky), the messaging of “You Can Help,” is simple, presenting options for what students can do, rather than lecturing them on what they can’t.

“We go into classrooms and say, ‘You can help by calling the police. You can help by taking your friend home. You can help by not leaving a friend at a part. You can help by being an advocate,’” says Culp.


Like the One in Four men’s program at the University of Virginia, the ultimate goal of the training program is to create an environment where perpetrating violence against another community member is socially unacceptable. Undergraduate leaders report that students feel fiercely involved in the cause.

“Young adults today don’t want their generation keeping quiet about the pain and horror of [sexual violence]…We want to make it more comfortable to speak out,” says Emily Counts, a sophomore who chairs the Student Senate’s Health and Wellness Committee.

Stickers created by SHARPP bearing the simple message, “You Can Help,” now adorn refrigerator doors, corkboards, backpacks and laptops.

“There’s so many ways of being a bystander,” Ryan Grogan, a senior history major who works with SHARPP, tells students. “If you let it happen, you’re part of the problem.”


Nationwide, focusing on prevention has made a recent resurgence in college dorms. (It briefly fell out of fashion as a solution to campus rape, partially because so much attention from the media and policymakers focused on victims’ horrific stories of rape and accused perpetrators’ demands for a fair hearing, Stapleton says.)

And soon, to stay in compliance with Title IX and the Campus SaVE Act, all universities will need to formulate broader responses that include prevention to the rapes occurring on their campus. It’s up to them. Will they do enough to barely stay in compliance? Or will they implement a more robust bystander intervention program (like the one at UNH) that changes how students interact with each other?

By giving sexual assault the attention it deserved, the University of New Hampshire became an undisputed leader. Everyone else has a lot of catching up to do.

This is an  abridged version of an article in a series published in NationSwell. The three- part series, was prepared as a Fellowship project by staff writer Chris Peak, a 2015-2016 John Jay/Solutions Journalism Network  Reporting Fellow. The full version and other parts of the series are available HERE. Chris welcomes readers’ comments.

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