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A student walks on a college campus, but the image is entirely red and black

The first few months of the fall term are considered the Red Zone for incoming and second-year students, based on research that half of campus sexual assaults will be reported during this time.

Photo illustration by Inside Higher Ed | Megan Jelinger for AFP/Getty Images

Each fall, a new cohort of students moves into college towns and campuses, creating a wave of transition that can be exciting and scary. The first few months of the academic year are also known as the Red Zone, a period when more sexual assaults are reported, and this time of year is always a concern for higher education practitioners and advocates for student well-being and safety.

As campus leaders prepare for the fall, investing in sexual assault prevention is one way to promote student success and wellness.

Title IX at Odds

This spring, the Biden administration released its new Title IX regulations, which were immediately met with pushback from conservative lawmakers, professors and House Republicans. The new rules clarify that Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sexual and gender identity, including LGBTQ+ students, and they change requirements for institutional response and investigation policies, among other updates.

What is the red zone: The Red Zone was first identified in a 2008 study, which found first-year women were at a higher risk for unwanted sexual experiences, particularly between move-in week and Thanksgiving break.

During this time, many students are attending parties, gatherings and other social events to meet with their peers or celebrate their return to campus, according to a Johns Hopkins University blog post by Alyse Campbell, associate director of gender violence prevention.

“New students are especially vulnerable during this time period, due to their unfamiliarity with the campus and the resources available to them if they have been assaulted,” Campbell wrote.

Additional research has found an estimated 26 percent of undergraduate women and 7 percent of undergraduate men experience sexual assault while at college, making sexual assault prevention from the start of a student’s life cycle an institutional need.

Here are four actions institutional leaders can take to help.

  1. Teach bystander prevention and consent

One way to empower students to look out for their fellow students is to implement bystander prevention training, which teaches students to recognize unsafe situations, advocate for their peers and support survivors.

A September 2023 report from It’s On Us found, among male college students, only 47 percent receive training on sexual assault prevention, and 87 percent of those students learned about consent, representing 34 percent of all students surveyed.

Ohio State University’s Student Wellness Center offers a Red Zone program that helps students make informed decisions and increase community safety through workshops, events and other resources.

Brown University has a prevention guide for students that addresses frequently asked questions such as “How can we hold our friends accountable?” and “How can we talk to people about changing their behavior?” to encourage students to engage in hard conversations.

  1. Highlight available resources

One of the reasons students are vulnerable in the Red Zone is because of unfamiliarity with campus supports, community and resources. Higher education leaders should address this awareness gap through frequent communication with new students as they transition to campus and education for all stakeholders.

Texas A&M provides a Red Zone tool kit that community members can use to raise awareness of resources around campus. Similarly, Purdue University’s Center for Advocacy, Response and Education offers an action tool kit that helps students and others recognize how to support survivors and prevent sexual violence.

  1. Establish clear policies and reporting pipelines

A 2023 research brief by the American Council on Education found college and university policies, including those related to sexual assault, can impact students’ mental health. These policies directly impact campus climate and students’ help-seeking behaviors, so creating a campus policy that supports survivors of sexual assault can, in turn, improve these other factors. Universities that have strict policies around sexual behavior may silence survivors intentionally or inadvertently, as well.

The Biden administration’s Title IX regulations have yet to be adopted, creating a challenge for campus leaders as they prepare for the fall semester, so emphasizing existing policy and communicating with students on changes or updates is crucial as students transition back.

  1. Provide sexual health resources

Colleges and universities can encourage students to make safe sexual health decisions as well, destigmatizing conversations around sex and connecting students to resources if they do need them.

Making safer-sex materials freely available and offering STI testing can connect learners with their student health centers. California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, has a sexual health education Canvas page that highlights relevant information for students and provides an anonymous forum for questions.

Abortion access has been limited in some states since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, but colleges can provide up-to-date information about what is available.

Do you have a wellness tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

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