Jessica Stevens, A&S ’14, and Joseph Palomba, A&S ’15, both staff members at the Women’s Resource Center (WRC), were invited to the White House last week to attend a round table discussion with the Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.
President Barack Obama established the task force in January, and last Tuesday Vice President Joe Biden chaired the first of nine meetings before the task force will make a recommendation regarding sexual assault prevention in April.
“We’re going to help schools do a better job of preventing and responding to sexual assault on their campuses,” Obama said of the task force during an address on Jan. 25. “Because college should be a place where our young people feel secure and confident, so they can go as far as their talents will take them.”
Stevens and Palomba, who were invited to the Feb. 18 forum via an email from Biden’s office on Feb. 14, both work in the WRC’s Bystander Intervention program. The program, which is in its fourth year at Boston College, trains and educates about 30 students each year to lead presentations that educate students about sexual assault and help identify the role of bystanders in sexual assault prevention.
Presentation leaders typically present to campus groups, classes, and in dormitories. Stevens and Palomba recently created an evaluation system to gauge the effectiveness of the program, in which they ask participants to complete a brief survey before the presentation, immediately following the presentation, and then three months after the presentation. Their research has indicated that freshmen learn the least from the program, while upperclassmen learn more.
“We talk about culture on BC’s campus, and college campuses, in general,” Palomba said of the presentations. “We talk about what we-as students-can do for our peers, proactively … We try to make it interactive. We ask questions of the students, there are a couple of videos.”
Back in January, Stevens and Palomba participated in a focus group with two researchers from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) about developing a bystander marketing campaign at BC. Jane Stapleton, one of the researchers and the lead developer of the Know-Your-Power Bystander marketing campaign, recommended to Biden’s office that Stevens and Palomba be invited to the White House to participate in the discussion with the task force.
The listening session, which included student advocates, researchers, and sexual assault survivors, was held in a conference room in Biden’s office and was attended by Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, and Lynn Rosenthal, an advisor on violence against women.
“Biden talked about how the meeting was a chance for the White House officials to listen to what we had to say since many of us had first-hand knowledge of what goes on at college campuses,” Stevens said in an email.
Biden addressed the participants and then asked each person to share their experiences and thoughts about how universities respond to sexual assault.
“He wanted us to explain what universities were doing well and what they weren’t doing well in regard to how they prevent and respond to sexual assault, and then what the federal government can do to help make colleges safer for students,” Stevens said.
Stevens spoke about the direct services that the WRC provides for survivors of sexual assault. Services include peer-support sessions, overviews of legal and medical options available to victims, and a 24/7 sexual assault network hotline. Many universities, especially those that do not have access to adequate funding, do not provide these services to students.
Palomba spoke about his experience with the Bystander program evaluation system that he and Jessica implemented at BC. The questions the surveys ask participants numerically rate their knowledge on the issues the program focuses on. The program’s effectiveness is based on the difference between the respondents’ pre and post surveys.
“[We] can state definitively-within error-that it’s better for sophomores, juniors, and seniors, because they learn more,” he said. “They’re more aware of the issues after the presentation. They are also more likely to intervene after receiving the presentation.”
They also found that while men showed more of a net gain in knowledge than their female counterparts, women started off with much more knowledge. Their gains, therefore, were not as drastic as men’s gains. After the meeting, White House officials asked Stevens and Palomba to send them more information about the research.
The Bystander Program at BC seeks to be proactive, rather than reactive, so it emphasizes the importance of educating students about how to prevent situations that may lead to sexual violence. It also encourages students to develop and execute plans if situations lead to sexual violence. Biden emphasized similar points at the White House meeting.
CBSnews.com released a video of Biden’s opening statements to the media. “We need to make it clear that everyone … has a responsibility here, especially men,” Biden told the student representatives in the video. “That means not looking the other way, that means seeing someone in trouble and helping, it means intervening, it means speaking out.”
Palomba said he would like to see more men become involved in the Bystander program. Currently, only about 10 out of the 60 presentation leaders are males.