Standing Up: Student Groups Take on Sexual Assault

By Jonathan G. Adler and Brian P. Yu

On two evenings in April, students gathered in Leverett Library for a performance. They were not there to see standup comedy, or an a capella group, or an orchestral concert. They were not even there to be entertained.

They were there to speak and listen about sexual assault at Harvard.

The theater project, entitled “Our Voices,” featured accounts from students about their experiences with sexual violence on campus. It was the product of an ongoing partnership between the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club and the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.

“I think it was really important for a lot of community members to start thinking about the ways that theater can both serve survivors and serve the community,” HRDC board member Eliza B. Mantz ’18 said.

Sexual assault prevention has, over the past year, continued to be a top priority for administrators and students alike, following the release of a sexual conduct climate report and preventative recommendations from a University-wide task force. While theater may not be considered a typical domain of sexual assault prevention efforts, it has emerged as one of many avenues for students sought to address the issue.

Over the past year, student groups have taken steps to address sexual assault more directly through OSAPR-organized bystander intervention trainings. But despite efforts to improve trainings, some have suggested the brief sessions on their own may be insufficient.

“I’m not likely to be able to end sexual assault in 50 minutes,” OSAPR Director Alicia Oeser said.

Student Responsibility

A University-wide sexual conduct climate survey found a “deeply distressing” prevalence of sexual assault at Harvard, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana wrote in an email this fall. Thirty-one percent of senior undergraduate females reported some form of “non-consensual sexual conduct” while at the College, and 16 percent of that cohort reported sexual penetration or attempted penetration without their consent.

A University task force on sexual assault prevention released a report this March calling for Harvard to mandate annual sexual assault prevention training for all students, and hire a full-time administrator in the Provost’s office to coordinate efforts to address issues of sexual violence across the University’s schools.

Administrators are still evaluating the task force’s recommendations, according to Associate Dean of Student Life David R. Friedrich.

“A lot of good thought is going into exactly all of the ways that the College will respond to this,” Friedrich said. “Those recommendations are being finalized.”

Meanwhile, students have begun their own sexual assault prevention initiatives. Earlier this semester, the Undergraduate Council’s Finance Committee passed legislation mandating bystander intervention training for the top quintile of student organizations that receive funding from the UC.

“I'm very interested in getting this going,” UC Finance Committee Chair William A. Greenlaw ’17 said to his committee while pitching the policy in February. “I think it's within our authority to do so; I think it has good externalities for this campus.”

During the two training sessions that took place after the policy went into effect this semester, more than 70 undergraduates from 16 clubs received training. The UC intends to continue the policy next academic year, Greenlaw said.

The UC-mandated trainings reached a wide range of student groups who requested UC funding this semester, from club sports organizations to cultural groups. Other student groups, including HRDC and Harvard College Queer Students and Allies, have implemented their own initiatives to help address sexual assault.

“I think it’s really important that students really step up and take leadership on this,” Friedrich said. “As leaders of student organizations, they have responsibility for smaller communities and are responsible for how the climate is set in that group.”

Better Bystanders

While College administrators have yet to implement the task force’s recommendation to mandate annual bystander intervention trainings for all students, they have praised the UC’s efforts to encourage student groups to receive trainings on their own.

Student leaders have also praised the effectiveness of the Council’s policy. UC President Shaiba Rather ’17 and UC Vice President Daniel V. Banks ’17 won November’s presidential election on a platform that, in part, called for improved bystander intervention trainings.

“[The trainings are] something that I think the student body has warmly received,” Banks said. “The sexual assault training for groups is really really important, and it’s gone over quite well.”

Greenlaw said he hopes the trainings will help to make undergraduates more aware of the resources available to victims of sexual assault. According to the University survey, 71 percent of respondents said they were not at all or only a little bit knowledgeable about what happens when a student reports sexual assault or misconduct.

By Niamh Mulholland

“People are discontent at Harvard, and there's a million resources,” Greenlaw said. “We just don't know where they are.”

Harvard’s Title IX Officer Mia Karvonides said her office has “fallen short” when it comes to making the University’s policies clear. As part of the ongoing effort to combat this confusion and lack of knowledge, the Title IX office is currently working to develop an online training module for students, Karvonides said. The office hopes to roll out the training at the College this fall—with programs for other schools at the University to follow.

Karvonides said that, while the online module could offer more in-depth training than students have previously received, a single training session every year would still be inadequate on its own.

“Doing an online training by itself is not enough,” Karvonides said. “That I think is clear. What we need is reinforcement throughout the year.”

Separate from any Title IX training, students currently receive a mandatory OSAPR-run bystander intervention workshop during the first week of freshman year from the peer counseling group. However, several students who recently received training under the UC initiative said they found value in reviewing information they may have previously forgotten.

“I think it was helpful for me personally. The only time that I had other sexual assault training or exposure to this kind of training was during the beginning of the year,” Harvard Figure Skating Co-President Joy Q. Jin ’19 said. “At the time it was very hectic... so it was very easy to have the sexual assault training get lost.”

Other clubs at the College have taken their own steps to address sexual assault concerns. Harvard College Queer Students and Allies has implemented policies to provide trainings and protect attendees at its parties. HRDC’s partnership with OSAPR is another example of clubs taking initiative to address sexual assault directly.

“They support us by having workshops with all of our directors and producers and stage managers,” Mantz—HRDC’s OSAPR liaison—said, describing OSAPR’s efforts to help HRDC. “Any show that deals with any gender-based violence or sexual assault or anything concerning consent, we have a representative from OSAPR come and work with the cast and staff to talk about the content, get a dialogue going.”

Mantz said the OSAPR trainings have been particularly effective in helping HRDC leaders better handle the “power dynamic that exists naturally within theater.”

“There’s really been sort of a mood shift in the rehearsal room,” Mantz said.

Questioning Impact

Trainings, which are growing in prominence on campus and nationwide, have their share of supporters, though some researchers and students have questioned the extent of their impact. In a 2016 paper analyzing the development and efficacy of bystander intervention programs, Caitlin B. Henriksen, Kelsey L. Mattick, and Bonnie S. Fisher wrote that more research is necessary to determine whether bystander trainings have long-term effects on students’ attitudes and behaviors.

“There is some evidence to suggest that bystander intervention training works in the short-term, but few studies have examined the long-term effects of these programs on college students,” Henriksen, Mattick, and Fisher wrote.

Some students, too, expressed concerns about the effectiveness of the trainings. The UC’s policy only requires that half of a club’s board receive bystander intervention training, which often amounts to a small fraction of a club’s total membership.

“[It’s] 50 percent of our executive board, but right now our board is two people,” Harvard Shooting Club Co-Captain Jake H. Hummer ’17 said.

Others who attended the trainings noted that, even if they were effective for those who attended, the lessons from the trainings might not impact the majority of club members.

“I am very doubtful if these club officers actually communicated with their club members about the training session,” Jin said.

Oeser said she believes the training sessions are not the sole solution to sexual assault, but rather just one of many steps undergraduates can take.

“Does an hour-long conversation produce long-term change? Not on its own,” Oeser said. “The more these conversations are happening, the more that we will see a… shift [in] attitudes.”

Some attendees at the UC-OSAPR training sessions said they felt the trainings were not specific and thus were not tailored to the needs of their groups.

“It seemed very general, the issues they were talking about. It didn’t really seem geared toward a club sport or toward a student organization. That’s something that could be worked on,” Hummer said.

Oeser said OSAPR is willing to tailor group-specific trainings to student organizations that request them, as it did with HRDC. She also noted the importance of providing standardized basic information to all student groups before providing more specific training to address groups’ individual needs.

While Oeser and other administrators acknowledged that mandating sexual assault training for some clubs is, on its own, unlikely to solve the growing concerns about sexual assault on campus, they still emphasized its importance as a movement in the right direction.

“We also recognize that this won't be done overnight,” Khurana said. “This is a long, sustained set of dialogues and discussions that we need to have.”

–Staff writer Jonathan G. Adler can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JonathanGAdler.

—Staff writer Brian P. Yu can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @brianyu28.

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