New UVA campaign trains community to counter sexual assault

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Sara Surface spent her summer helping launch a new initiative at UVA to help end sexual assault. Photo: Emily Moroné Sara Surface spent her summer helping launch a new initiative at UVA to help end sexual assault. Photo: Emily Moroné

If UVA third-year Sara Surface has to write a “how I spent my summer vacation” essay at the start of this semester, the gist would be something like this: Helped my school end rape culture.

Surface, a global development studies major from Northern Virginia and a student leader with the University’s Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition, is one of several undergrads who helped develop the Hoos Got Your Back campaign, an effort to prevent sexual assault through bystander intervention that launched last month. It’s the University’s latest effort at preventing sexual violence in the student population, and it’s keeping UVA near the forefront of a national conversation about the high rate of campus rape in the U.S.

The idea behind the bystander intervention approach is simple enough that it’s often distilled down into pat phrases: Step up; if you see something, say something. It’s not a new concept, but it’s increasingly being adopted as a best practice in preventing sexual violence, particularly on college campuses, where, according to to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in five women report having experienced sexual assault during their undergraduate years. The message is often about the power of acts like turning lights on and music off at a party to put the brakes on unwanted sexual attention, or simply asking someone at a bar if she needs help getting a cab home.

For two years now, it’s the approach UVA has used in talking to incoming first-years about sexual assault during orientation sessions, said University Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo.

“Before that, it was more of a safety and security talk,” Eramo said. Now the message is different, thanks in part to guidance from Green Dot, etc., a nonprofit founded by a psychologist who worked for years in violence prevention at universities before striking out to create a violence prevention curriculum she could take to institutions around the country. Representatives from the group, including Jennifer Messina, who got her master’s and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from UVA, have come to the University to lead start-of-the-year talks.

“What they’ve found is this binary of predators and prey hasn’t worked for 30 years,” said Eramo.

Surface puts it more bluntly.

“Nobody is going into a room of all males or all females and saying, ‘You are the rapists,’ and ‘You are the victims,’” she said. “The message is, ‘You all have a stake in this issue, because you all have the potential to be active bystanders.’”

Hitting on the right prevention message in an effort to change a culture that allows high rates of sexual assault to persist is difficult, she said. Too often, it’s been one that demonizes men and preaches to women. But the “be on the lookout” approach can resonate with everybody, she said.

“You want people to recognize that we have a responsibility to each other,” she said.

Over the summer, Surface and other students involved in sexual assault prevention on Grounds worked with former longtime UVA communications director Carol Wood—back from retirement for a few months on a contract basis—to turn the active bystander idea into a full-blown awareness campaign ahead of the start of the semester. The timing mattered; the first part of the year on college campuses, from day one through Thanksgiving break, is sometimes called the “red zone,” because data shows it’s often when the most sexual assaults occur.

One novel part of the Hoos Got Your Back campaign is an effort to get bar owners and other Corner merchants in on the message. Managers and staff at about a dozen businesses, including popular student hangouts like Boylan Heights, Biltmore Grill, and Coupe de Ville, were briefed on the campaign, shown violence prevention materials, and told about the prevention and survivor resources for students at UVA—no in-depth training at this point, said Surface, but an acknowledgement that wait staff have a stake in the issue.

“Our response was overwhelmingly positive,” she said. “They were excited to have been invited to be involved.”

The campaign’s main messaging tool, which all new first-years saw when they arrived last month, is a two-minute video featuring familiar faces—Dean of Students Allen Groves, football coach Mike London, and others, including students—imploring watchers to be the person in the crowd who comes forward to take care of somebody in trouble.

The language is honor-heavy, inspirational, and not big on specifics. Apart from a few statistics in the beginning, there’s barely any mention of sexual assault; one featured speaker says everyone needs to “watch the backs of people who are in danger, but we also have to watch the backs of people who might be making, you know, mistakes.”

So can a campaign based around hash-
tagged slogans and YouTube videos really make a difference? Groves said the University believes it can, and emphasized that Hoos Got Your Back is only part of a broader effort to stop sexual violence at UVA. A full-time sexual assault prevention coordinator was hired this year, and Emily Renda, a 2013 graduate who chaired UVA’s Sexual Assault Leadership Council last year, has been hired on as a special intern in Vice President of Student Affairs Patricia Lampkin’s office. New online training on prevention and available resources for students and faculty will be launched in January. President Teresa Sullivan paid a house call to the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, which has several members who are active in the all-male sexual assault prevention organization One in Four, to talk about their role in the awareness campaign.

“The more we say this is a big deal, the more likely it will be that we’ll make a difference,” Groves said.

For UVA, the stakes are especially high. The University is one of dozens of schools, including many elite publics and Ivies, under investigation by the Department of Education for possible violations of anti-discrimination mandate Title IX’s requirements around sexual violence. The case that put UVA on the list of schools under scrutiny dates back to 2011, making it one of the earliest colleges to be put on the watch list.

But policies have been changed since then, said Groves, and “we feel good about where the University is right now and where it’s been going.”

The federal investigation has helped spark a national conversation about the rate of rape on college campuses, and Groves said that’s a good thing, because it’s primed the community in Charlottesville for action.

“There’s no question that the national dialogue has helped raise awareness,” he said. “If you’re a student or a faculty member and you’re reading stories in the Washington Post about the renewed focus on this, it gets your attention.”

Surface said she’s already seen evidence that the message is sinking in. People are talking about it on social media, sharing stories of looking out for friends, she noted. And they want to do more.

“I get a couple e-mails a day from people wanting to get involved with the cause and wondering what they can do,” she said. “It’s been good to see.”