A Significant Stride

UH releases results of 2017 Climate Survey on Sexual Harassment and Gender-Based Violence

Copy Editor Rosannah Gosser

If you’ve been keeping up with the news, the topic of sexual misconduct is anything but new. In the past few months, national media has covered dozens of women coming forward and speaking out against sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination. High-profile men, from government officials to entertainment luminaries, have been fired or forced to resign as a consequence, or as some may say, a victory.

Our very own university began to take major steps in the movement to end sexual misconduct even before the recent tidal wave of allegations. Early last year, the University of Hawai`i initiated the 2017 Student Climate Survey on Sexual Harassment and Gender-Based Violence, the results of which were released on Jan. 8 of this year. Described by the university as “groundbreaking,” it is the first of its kind, examining the experiences of both two-year and four-year degree college students with incidences like intimate partner violence.

The survey is also unique because the questions considered the experiences of students both on and off campus. Encompassing UH’s ten campuses, the data incorporates information answered by more than 6,300 students, or roughly 14 percent of the entire university student body. UH news reported: “The data will be used to assess the university’s progress and to guide policy, training and initiatives to meet the university’s obligations under the Violence Against Women Act and Title IX.”

Ke Kalahea sat down with Jennifer Stotter, UH Hilo’s Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity, to discuss how policies like Title IX apply to UH students. Federal laws such as the Violence Against Women Act and Title IX, both of which address sexual misconduct and/or gender-based discrimination, are reflected in public universities’ policies, such as that of the UH system. But instead of using criminal terms like “rape” to describe acts of sexual violence, university policies specify them as sex or gender discrimination, harassment, assault, domestic and dating violence, and stalking.

“The climate campus survey tried to capture the prevalence of these different categories through very specific concrete examples,” explains Stotter. “You find that when people have been harassed, they’re applying different definitions to what that means; the survey attempts to capture incidences, prevalence, reporting, and a general sense of safety and trust in the university and our ability to handle a report.”

In other words, by providing explicit terminology in survey questions, students are able to more accurately identify if they’ve had experiences with sexual harassment or gender-based violence. “In recent years, the number of reports have gone up,” Stotter says, “not because of increased incidences but because people are starting to learn that there’s an office where you can get help.”

So what did the climate survey results disclose about sexual misconduct incidents for UH students? The majority of participants responded that they felt safe on-campus and at off-campus university events, with 59.3% answering that they did not at all feel at-risk of sexual harassment or gender-based violence. And only 9.3% of the participants reported that they had experienced sexual assault while enrolled at UH, the most common forms being sexual remarks, offensive jokes or stories, and inappropriate comments.

The survey results also showed that rates of domestic violence and intimate partner violence are relatively high compared with students’ experiences with sexual harassment. About 19% of respondents said that they had experienced domestic and intimate partner violence both on and off campus, the most prevalent tactics being a partner controlling how others saw the participant and a partner isolating the participant from other relationships.

Fortunately, it seems that when students see conflicts escalating between partners, they do something about it. According to Stotter, the bystander intervention rates are especially high, particularly for UH Hilo students. After suspecting that a friend had been sexually assaulted, 71% of UH Hilo participants responded that they did something, such as encouraging the victim to seek help.

“We want to make sure we have a safe campus and that students know if something happens to them, we have resources here and we’re here to help,” Stotter told Ke Kalahea. “Title IX’s goal is to ensure that people have equal access to educational opportunities, and we want our students to be successful. If something like an act of sexual misconduct happens to you as a student, we want to help you be able to work through it.”

The university provides several different services that students are urged to utilize if they experience sexual harassment or gender-based violence. These include the Office of Equal Opportunity, which houses the Title IX Coordinator for reporting misconduct as well as a Confidential Advocate and Prevention Educator; additional supports for students include the Student Health and Wellness Center, which provides both medical and counseling services, the Women’s Center, the LGBTQ Center, and Disabilities Services, among others.

Stotter is also working towards initiating a task force action committee to address the biggest concerns brought up from the survey, such as building healthy relationships and mediating bystander intervention, as well as ways to ensure that students continue to feel safe on campus.

The University of Hawai`i is planning on conducting the Climate Survey on Sexual Harassment and Gender-Based Violence every two years. “We have made significant strides in addressing these issues over the past several years, but our goal is campus life free of sexual harassment and gender-based violence and we have even more to do,” David Lassner, president of the university, told UH news on the day of the survey’s release.

The first of UH’s surveys investigating sexual misconduct affecting students is impeccably coincidental with the national movement to speak out against sexual offences. Perhaps we’re witnessing a critical shift in people standing up against sexual discrimination and assault, saying that time’s up for those who get away with it and fighting for a safe and equitable world for all.