Just the Necessities

Most college websites include basic information about campus sexual assault policies, a new study says, but the information is often bare-bones and difficult to locate.

August 14, 2015

Most college websites include “necessary information” about campus sexual assault policies, a new study found, but at many institutions, the content is difficult to locate and lacking in additional resources that could assist victims after an assault or help in prevention efforts.

“Although most colleges provide basic information about sexual assault policies and related resources, most don't go beyond that in terms of providing information that would be helpful to survivors of sexual assault and their support systems,” Emily Lund, a doctoral student at Utah State University and one of study’s authors, said. “Also, most of the information was reactive and focused only on the policy end of things, rather than focusing on creating a student body that is more aware of issues like rape myths and victim blaming.”

Lund and her co-author, Katie Thomas, a postdoctoral fellow in women’s mental health at the University of California at San Diego, partnered with a team of coders to examine the websites of 102 nonprofit four-year colleges and universities. Their findings were published last week in Psychology of Women Quarterly.

About 88 percent of the institutions included information related to sexual assault on their university websites. In more than 60 percent of the colleges, the information was found on pages devoted to campus safety and security. Slightly more than 45 percent of colleges included the information in university policy documents or in Clery reports, the annual summaries of campus crime data that the federal government requires colleges to release, while fewer than a quarter posted the information on student affairs or counseling center pages.

Twelve percent of colleges did not include information about sexual assault anywhere on their websites, according to the study.

Many of those that did include sexual assault-related information had it scattered across various webpages, the authors wrote, often making it difficult or laborious to locate, even for dedicated coders who approached the sites with the specific intention of being thorough. Navigating through various pages for information would likely be more difficult for students who were experiencing emotional distress after an assault.

Some of the information was found by using Google search to scan for keywords in PDF documents, for example -- a method unlikely to be employed by a student looking for help.

“It is likely that many college students, especially those in crisis due to their own sexual assault or that of a friend, would not search through policy-heavy text to find information regarding sexual assault and sexual assault resources,” the authors wrote. “Additionally, this information is unlikely to be viewed by university students who are seeking out sexual assault information preemptively but who do not wish to read the entire university policy on sexual assault.”

Other research has begun to show that many students may be unaware of where and how to locate campus sexual assault resources and policies. Earlier this year, a survey of students at the University of Michigan found that 70 percent of female undergraduates said they did not know where to find the university’s sexual assault policy online.

About 16 percent of female students said they were not even aware that the policy existed.

A white paper presented at the International Association of College Law Enforcement Administrators’ annual meeting last month argued that the channels available to students for learning about or reporting sexual assault should be easily found on a college’s website. The information should be no more than four clicks from the home page, the paper stated. A 2009 study also found that most college websites only included sexual assault polices and little in the way of resources or prevention efforts.

The type of information included on the web pages in the new study varied. Most colleges -- about 70 percent -- defined sexual assault, and made clear that there are different kinds of assaults other than vaginal penetration. Fewer than one-third defined consent, however.

That omission troubled the researchers, Lund said, as there continues to be confusion on college campuses about what constitutes as consent. Many colleges have recently adopted new policies using what is called “affirmative consent.” In some states, such as California, that definition of consent is now law for colleges, and it is defined as “an affirmative, unambiguous and conscious decision by each participant to engage in mutually agreed-upon sexual activity.”

Such a definition should be easily found on college websites, the authors wrote.

“Most of the colleges in our study provided information on what to do in the immediate aftermath of an assault, such as not showering, changing clothes or going to the bathroom, relatively few had information on what the psychological or emotional effects of the assault might be,” Lund said. “Providing information like this could help survivors reach out for help without feeling alone or like their experiences are unusual. Also, directly addressing issues like affirmative consent, victim blaming and rape myths could help create a better informed student body overall.”


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