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A Campus Safety Awareness Month Like No Other

By SMART Staff


September 2020 is a far different "Back to School Month" than any in the past. Usually a transitionary time for students and families, September is also National Campus Safety Awareness Month. One safety topic often addressed is sexual assault prevention and awareness. However, this September, due to the challenges of online learning, campus safety concerns have shifted significantly.

New regulations for campus sexual assault reporting

The new Title IX regulations, released by the Department of Education in May, went into effect on August 12, 2020, augmenting how schools that receive federal funding, including K-12, colleges and universities, should respond to reports of sexual assault, sexual misconduct and sexual harassment. As many campuses have moved to virtual and blended learning models, understanding these new regulations and their impacts on students has become more complex. Even as schools are adapting for COVID, they will need to adapt as they work to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct on campus and among their students.

To note, the new Title IX regulations may signal a significant shift in the reporting of and responding to sexual misconduct on campus. The regulations offer a more specific and narrower definition of sexual misconduct. Additionally, once misconduct is reported, the new regulations open the possibility for alternative resolutions for college and university students, if both parties agree. Alternative resolutions offer opportunities to get help for everyone involved, including the student accused of sexual misconduct.

While the importance of prevention hasn't changed — including bystander intervention training and taking time to talk to children, teens and college-age students in age-appropriate ways — there are differences this year in how schools will respond to reports of sexual misconduct. Students and parents can prepare themselves by following key recommendations: be aware of federal protections, including Title IX, the Clery Act and relevant state laws; be aware of a school's sexual misconduct policies; and explore additional precautions and resources that might be needed as institutions shift instructional methods.

As schools, parents and students continue to have important conversations on campus safety in light of these changes and challenges, useful resources include the following:

New recommendations for students attending online classes

Due to changes in school structure for fall 2020 — with virtual learning and various blended approaches — the risks that children, teens and college students face have shifted to include increased online security and privacy risks. In terms of sexual abuse, children and youth are simultaneously spending more time online while also experiencing isolation. Many have lost access to typical support systems that they might have previously relied on outside of the home. Recent statistics have shown troubling trends reflecting the impact that spending more time at home and online has had on children and teens.

For the first time in the history of the National Sexual Assault Hotline (run by RAINN and funded in part by the Office for Victims of Crime), children and teens made up half of the callers in March. For the majority of these calls, the minors identified the perpetrator as a family member (67%), and nearly four out of five said they were living with the person who was harming them (79%). For May and June, RAINN reported that half of the visitors to its online hotline were minors and reported an 18% increase in the number of people who had received help from its victim service programs, compared to the same time period last year.

Additionally, many states have recorded a dramatic drop in reports of child abuse — ranging from 20% to as much as 70%, according to news sources and independent studies. This drop in reporting may be because, in most states, the mandated reporters (e.g., teachers, pediatricians and other professionals in contact with children and teens) who do the most reporting (67%) were no longer seeing the children at school, doctors' offices and other settings.

To adjust to the reality of virtual learning, some of the key internet safety recommendations have changed. For example, in the past, one key safety message to families was to limit a child's online time. However, now that many children, teens and college students are attending school fully or partially online, that might not be realistic.

There are resources for families to help children and teens use the internet safely, including the following:

  • The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children provides an Internet Safety at Home tip sheet, as well as the NetSmartz's web series, which can help parents teach cybersecurity basics.
  • The Federal Trade Commission's Chatting With Kids About Being Online provides parents with age-appropriate information for children, tweens and teens.
  • Connect Safely, the organization that hosts the Safer Internet Day in the U.S., offers a tip sheet on safe social networking for teens.
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline sponsors the site loveisrespect.org, which provides information for teens and young adults on healthy dating, including internet and phone interactions, and information for parents and teachers.
  • The Tech Safety App, created by the National Network to End Domestic Violence with funding from the Office for Victims of Crime, walks users through how particular technology could be misused and what they can do about it, and offers users safety tips on how to increase their safety and privacy.

In 2005, Congress approved the National Campus Safety Awareness Month resolution, with the explicit purpose of encouraging public conversations about important topics in violence prevention. To help mark this month, consider ways to initiate and prompt conversations about boundaries, dating, consent and sexual misconduct. The deeper challenge is to explore how these conversations may need to shift as so much of the campus world has shifted this September.

Date Published: September 22, 2020