University of Iowa debuts new online training to reduce sexual assault

Grassley pushes legislation cracking down on campus violence

University of Iowa campus. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
University of Iowa campus. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Here's the scenario. You're at a college party, and you see a guy take a female student a drink — presumably one with alcohol. He offers her a shot. Then he leans in and she steps back. Later, he leads the stumbling woman from the room.

Would you notice? Is there something you could see yourself doing to respond or intervene?

That situation and those questions are among several being posed to incoming University of Iowa undergraduates this fall as part of a new online, video-based training program aimed at reducing sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking on college campuses.


The new training is among several changes the university has made or is the process of making after students earlier this year voiced concern with the UI's response to sexual misconduct on campus.

Changes include developing more severe sanctions for offenders, increasing support for victims, adding lighting on campus, funding additional safe-ride services, rewording warning emails, and improving the quality and effectiveness of the training program required for new UI students.

“You don't want to wait until someone is going to be sexually assaulted. You want to identify a problematic situation and interrupt it.”

- Beth Ripperger

Behavioral health consultant for UI Student Health and Wellness


The new program, titled Every Choice: A New Program by Green Dot., Etc. and Student Success, focuses on reducing sexual violence by training students to use “realistic, actionable bystander intervention tools.”

“From a public health perspective, you are aiming more toward behavior change,” said Beth Ripperger, behavioral health consultant for UI Student Health and Wellness. “You want them to intervene before a crime occurs.

“You don't want to wait until someone is going to be sexually assaulted. You want to identify a problematic situation and interrupt it.”

The issue of sexual violence on campuses has become a hot topic of late, both in Iowa and nationally. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers — including Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley — introduced legislation seeking to address sex assault on campuses by “protecting and empowering students and strengthening accountability and transparency for institutions.”

The Campus Safety and Accountability Act aims to reverse a trend of nonreporting and non-compliance with the existing federal law by making it in colleges' best interest to take steps to “protect their students and rid their campuses of sexual predators.”

Its provisions include requiring colleges and universities to designate confidential advisers to serve as resources for victims and prohibiting schools from sanctioning students who, in good faith, reveal violations — such as underage drinking — in hopes of encouraging more sexual assault reports.

It would enact minimum training standards for campus personnel and mandate “historic” transparency requirements, in part by publishing the names of schools with pending investigations and resolutions related to Title IX.

“For the first time, students at every university in America will be surveyed about their experience with sexual violence,” according to a news release from Grassley.

“This new annual survey will be standardized and anonymous, with the results published online so that parents and high school students can make an informed choice when comparing universities.”

The act also would require schools to use a uniform process for campus disciplinary proceedings, meaning individual departments — such as athletics — no longer would be allowed to handle complaints of sexual violence independently.

Schools that don't comply with certain requirements of the new bill could face penalties of up to 1 percent of their operating budget. In the past, under the Jeanne Clery Act, the penalty was the loss of all financial aid, “which is not practical and has never been done,” according to Grassley.

The U.S. Department of Education handles laws concerning campus sexual assault, and Title IX requires colleges to respond to sexual assault and harassment cases on campus and create policies to help prevent those incidents.

The Clery Act requires colleges to report information on crime and provide victims with rights and resources.

Grassley on Wednesday said the proposed legislation doesn't come in response to recent reports of sexual violence on Iowa campuses but rather a finding nationally that the issue is not given the attention it deserves.

“Too often, universities handle this with kid gloves,” Grassley said. “Our legislation is treating it like a boxing glove issue ... Put the boxing gloves on. Be tough on crime. Discourage sexual assault and make everyone safer on campus.”

'This is a better product'

UI officials on Wednesday said they have not yet gone through the bill line by line to determine the impact on the university.

“But our general sense is that there are many good ideas here,” UI spokesman Joseph Brennan said.

The university already is doing some of the things proposed by the legislation, such as publishing information for survivors on its website and partnering with victim advocacy groups, Brennan said.

And responding to complaints from students earlier this year, UI President Sally Mason in February rolled out a six-point plan related to sexual violence on campus. The points include cracking down on offenders, increasing support for survivors, upgrading prevention and education measures, improving communication, adding funding for programs that address sexual violence and listening more and reporting back.

The new online training for incoming UI students is part of the university's prevention and education efforts that focus, in large part, on bystander intervention.

“We heard from students last year, and some of them weren't happy with the online course that we had,” Mason said. “So we are trying a new product this fall.”

Mason told a group of reporters earlier this month that the university has tested the product on some of the students who were critical of the old training.

“They feel this is a better product,” Mason said. “So we are going to test it to see how it works and whether or not we get a good response from it.”

The new online training program is different for undergraduate and graduate students — primarily regarding the scenarios they pose for potential sexual assaults.

Ripperger, who is overseeing the UI's new online training, said the goal is to empower individuals to speak up during potentially-troubling situations they could realistically encounter.

Addressing the concerns

Issues about the program UI previously used to train new undergraduates centered on lack of accountability. Some students said they could start the online video and then walk away from the computer, ignoring the training.

Monique DiCarlo, UI sexual misconduct response coordinator, said the program gave subjects tests both before and after they watched the online training to make sure they retained the information.

“If you weren't watching it, and you didn't know the content, you wouldn't pass,” DiCarlo said. “If someone turned it on and walked away and passed the test, then they knew the information. And that's what we want.”

DiCarlo's office tracks pretest- and post-test results from previous years, and that data shows significant increases in scores after students were trained. Undergraduates, for example, scored an average of 54 percent on the pretest and an average of 87 percent on the post-test, a 63 percent increase, according to UI data.

DiCarlo said the UI decided to upgrade its training in the fall — before students expressed concern with the system.

“The primary reason we looked at additional products is because, when we chose our existing training, not much more had come to market,” DiCarlo said.

But, she said, the new program is more centered on bystander intervention, which is the message the university is pushing across campus. It also asks students questions throughout the training, keeping them at their computer, she said.

In addition to the online training, students will hear about sexual violence prevention during orientation programs, from resident assistants, from fraternities and sororities, and in the classroom.

“Students will be seeing this information on a recurring fashion,” DiCarlo said. “It's not just a one-time thing. It's ongoing.”

New UI students will have access to the online program beginning Friday, and undergraduates will have until Sept. 8 to complete and pass the program. Graduate students will have until Oct. 1.

An 80 percent pass rate is required on the post-test, and students who don't take the training or don't pass will receive an “unsatisfactory” on their transcript.

“They have to take it until they pass it,” DiCarlo said. “We want 100 percent of students to have a satisfactory response.”

Graduate students who don't pass or complete the training won't be able to register for the next semester's classes. DiCarlo said that also used to be true for undergraduates.

“But the belief is that students are more concerned about what is in their transcript,” DiCarlo said. “So that's the motivation.”

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