Study: Many school websites are failing sexual assault survivors seeking help

Just one-third contain specific, helpful information

Colleges and universities need to improve their websites' content and accessibility of sexual assault resources, writes Elizabeth Englander for The Conversation.

The psychology professor at Bridgewater State University examined the help and guidance available online for survivors of or bystanders to sexual assault. She and her colleagues looked at a random sample of 150 institutions from the list of all colleges that receive federal aid.

"Rape is a crime about secrecy and shame" so most are never reported, she says. The Internet is an easy, anonymous, and natural way for students to learn more about reporting such a crime before deciding if they want to go to the authorities.

Of the school websites studied:

  • Only 15% did not mention sexual assault at all;
  • Two-thirds contained "very general" information about their policy, reporting a crime, and campus police; and
  • One-third had information useful for victims, like a hotline number, how to report an assault to police, and the importance of preserving evidence.

But only 15% provided information about filing an anonymous report.

Related: How to establish anonymous sexual assault reporting

Additionally, the necessity of receiving immediate medical care was not emphasized nearly enough, Englander says. Only 30% discussed the need, and of that just 18.7% emphasized it strongly.

More than a third used suggestive language—like "victims should consider," rather than directive, like "it is important that you seek immediate medical attention," Englander says.

Not only can sexual assault lead to physical internal injuries, unplanned pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases, but it also often results in psychological issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, extreme anxiety, depression, and suicide. Medical teams direct survivors to counseling, psychological support, and preserve evidence.

"It's possible that some schools fear that by posting such specific, helpful information, they may be implying that sexual assault occurs on their campus. At other institutions, administrators may cling to the belief that rape is rare or even nonexistent at their college," she writes.

However, hotline numbers, medical assistance contact information, school policy, and counseling contact numbers should always be listed, Englander says.

"Today, no campus can be assumed to be 100% safe, and schools can introduce information about sexual assault by pointing out that sensible precautions and access to quality information can help keep everyone safer and happier," she writes (Englander, The Conversation, 8/13).

Liz Brown, Student Affairs Forum

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