Over the last year, Wyoming Public Radio’s education reporter Tennessee Watson put together an award-winning series on sexual assault at the University of Wyoming. Watson’s conversations with students revealed confusion about the reporting process and uncertainty about the university’s willingness to take action. This spring UW conducted a campus climate survey to get a better handle on the prevalence of sexual violence and what happens in its aftermath. She sat down with UW President Laurie Nichols at her office to discuss the survey, the results and what's next.
Tennessee Watson: Why did this survey feel so critical? And what did you hope it would reveal that you wouldn't otherwise know?
President Laurie Nichols: This survey was suggested to me by the No More Committee and this is a group of university individuals, including students, who have been really working with me on trying to address sexual assault and rape on campus, and to make our campus as safe as possible.
I'm always a firm believer that having good data will really help inform decisions going forward. And we didn't have that. We had not been surveyed like that, at least for some time, and I'm not even sure if we had really done one like that in the past. So we really felt like it was time to do so and it would inform the committee, as well as myself in terms of where we're at and what we need to do going forward.
TW: The results of the survey were just released and 27.1 percent of the 1,913 respondents who completed the survey reported experiencing at least one instance of sexual assault during their time here. But what really jumped out to me was that of the students who reported experiencing any type of sexual misconduct in the survey, around 53 percent of them had told someone about that incident or incidents previously. And 47 percent of them had not. And of those that did disclose around 90 percent had told a close friend, 50 percent had told their roommate, but only 13 percent told a faculty or staff member. And then it gets even lower: 10 percent reported to the Dean of Students Office or through some formal reporting mechanism.
So did this reluctance on the part of students to make an official report, did that surprise you?
LN: It did a little. I mean we know that the incidence of reporting is low. That's a national phenomenon. If you read information about sexual assault on campuses you know the I think the consensus nationally is that it's underreported and that every campus is faced with this challenge of trying to get reporting up. But was 10 percent a little overwhelming to me in terms of how low we are? It was. And the reality is that still only half, roughly, of students who are experiencing this are reporting it to really anyone. And then if you look at who they're reporting it to, we’re [on the] bottom. The university is the lowest in terms of where students will turn when they're reporting an incidence of sexual assault. And I think really at the end of the day that is probably one of the most important findings from this survey. It's were low and we have a lot of work to do. And that is thus why we wanted this information; is that we wanted to gauge where we're at. And it certainly opens the door for us and for the No More Campaign to get to work on campus and see if we can impact that number. We need to try to move the number up in terms of the number of students who are reporting this to our campus authorities.
TW: I have a question about the task force as well. There are people on that task force who are also responsible for these education prevention and response efforts, which what that means is that if a student has a concern and they go to the task force they're likely to face the same people that they feel mishandled their experience. And so I'm wondering what's your thinking about the composition of that group?
LN: I think to some extent you're probably bringing up the issue of what is the mission or the role of the task force. And do I see that as a sounding board whereby students that are unhappy or feel like they haven't been treated appropriately go to? I really don't. The task force was put in place because we wanted to pull together the individuals across campus who are in fact charged with and involved with sexual assault and rape cases. So these are the people, these are our go-to people. So these would be people like our police officers. It would be people like our student affairs personnel and our sexual assault office staff that work with us directly. So if you think about it these are kind of feet on the ground folks who are working on this every day to try to improve our campus. I don't see this as the sounding board where students would go if they're unhappy. I think we need that, but it's not them.
TW: And one of the other things that were addressed in this survey was the positive and negative role that UW plays. And it seemed like overall there was a sense that the university played a positive role. But then when survivors of sexual misconduct at the university were asked, then their response was that the university did not play as positive a role.
LN: What comes out of that message for me is that we need to do a much better job of training on our campus of our faculty and staff, because in fact when a student comes forward and has experienced this really traumatic incident in their life, and are obviously traumatized from it, there are appropriate ways to respond and there are inappropriate ways to respond. And I suppose at some point there's maybe a non-response that happens too. And we need to really work with our own employees to make sure that they understand what would be appropriate ways to respond to this. It is a time when showing empathy is really important but it's also a time when we make referrals quickly so that we can immediately get students into the hands of people who are most prepared to work with them. And we do have those people on campus but I think often that maybe is missed in that we aren't training adequately or appropriately so that people really know where those resources sit and how quickly to get those referrals done. So I think that there is a great amount of work we can do on training and that's really one of the takeaway messages we've gotten from this survey too.