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Cultivating Community Strengthens Solidarity: Committing to a Culture of Respect

Updated: Jan 9

An interview with Jennifer Henkle, the Director of Sexual Violence Prevention and Response at NASPA - Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. She leads, along with Jessica Henault, the Culture of Respect initiative aimed at ending campus sexual violence in the United States.

Location: Zoom (Kentucky + New York City, USA!)

Jennifer and Camille on zoom smiling
Top to bottom: Jennifer Henkle and Camille Schloeffel

Henkle is a compassionate, thoughtful and collaborative leader dedicated to supporting institutions to prevent and respond to sexual violence in their communities. Speaking with her made me feel confident in the initiatives she and her colleagues do at NASPA, of which I was initially skeptical based on my experience with similar institutions in Australia.

Henkle has worked in the university sector for many years in roles working with students who are victim-survivors and respondents* (perpetrators), with the goal of reducing harm and supporting post-traumatic growth and healing. She has also worked in strategic roles aimed at fostering greater structural and cultural change within a university institution by bringing together a multi-sectoral stakeholder group focused on sexual violence prevention. Henkle believes a public health perspective is necessary when thinking about preventing sexual violence on campus. This has been reiterated time and time again by experts, advocates, activists and victim-survivors in the space of sexual violence prevention across all areas of society.

After harm has already been done, how can we reduce rates of recidivism by respondents and ensure they won't harm anyone else again?

Henkle and I spoke about approaches to reducing further harm from occurring after sexual violence has already happened. Of course, there are those who are repeat offenders who seek to use and abuse others. But there are also those experiences of unwanted sex and non-consensual sexual interactions where the respondent has expressed they did not know what they did is wrong and wants to change. There is a spectrum and we must adopt an approach that prevents further harm from happening again after it has already been done before.

I know for me, all I have ever wanted is for my perpetrators to never sexually assault or violate another person again. I want them to realise what they did is wrong, educate themselves on the harm they caused me, and ensure they never do harm to anyone else. This is a common feeling for many victim-survivors and something Henkle and I discussed during the interview. We spoke about how to support respondents to recognise their actions, be accountable and never commit harm again. While ensuring there is accessible, trauma-informed and confidential support for victim-survivors available on campus, there also must be a confidential space for respondents to seek support. Higher education need to do a better job of having services available for these students, such as having dedicated case managers on campus responsible for working with students who have perpetrated some form of sexual harm.

We need respondents to also have access to restorative processes so they can move through a process of acknowledging their harm, genuinely meeting the requested needs of the victim-survivor (i.e. an apology, not being in the same space again, moving college etc.), taking the time to learn and understand the drivers of violence and what led to their decision-making to sexually violate another person, and coming to a place where they will never do it to someone else and it never happens again.

There is a caveat to all of this that the needs and support of victim-survivors must always come first, and these services should only be implemented if victim-survivors and their supporters have access to trauma-informed, survivor-centred and confidential support that meets their needs.

Henkle and I also spoke about how to get buy-in from institutions to commit to culture of respect, invest in the work and to take students seriously as equal partners in solutions. Henkle reflected that sometimes it takes the Federal Government to be vocal on the issues of sexual violence in tertiary learning communities for anyone to take notice of the problem. We need Government intervention to support what students have always been calling for.

Student voices are the most valuable. Students are the key to a lot of it. Student activism drives change.

Henkle reaffirmed that students are the key stakeholders in addressing sexual violence on campus and must be treated as so by their respective institutions. We spoke about the barriers to student engagement when the universities constantly treat students as unable to be a part of solutions. Henkle and her colleagues at NASPA follow the research that students (and everyone for that matter) are more likely to listen to their peers. NASPA has a certified peer educator initiative which aids in institutions taking that step to trust their students to act as peer facilitators in this work as they can find solace in knowing there is a formal education process to learn how to be effective peer educators.

Committing to a Culture of Respect: Supporting Institutions to Change

Founded by concerned parents of college-aged students in 2013, Culture of Respect brings together public health and violence prevention researchers and experts in advocacy, student affairs, higher education policy and law, to create resources and guidance on how to create well campus environments.

One of the core initiatives of Culture of Respect is their Collective, a two-year program that brings together institutions of higher education who are dedicated to ending campus sexual violence and guides them through a rigorous process of self-assessment and targeted organisational change. I attended their briefing for the Collective where Henkle and Henault stepped out the six pillars to change for an institution:

  1. Survivor support with options on reporting

  2. Ongoing self-assessment

  3. Clear policies on misconduct, investigations, adjudications and sanctions

  4. Schoolwide mobilisation with student groups and leaders

  5. Multi-tiered education for the entire campus

  6. Public disclosure of statistics.

The Collective aims to assess where each institution is at, then create an action plan, helps them implement it and then does a review at the end of the two-year period. Once the two-year period is over, Henkle and Henault remain available for ongoing support as required and requested.

Institutions often use bystander intervention programs or online modules on consent as the be-all-end-all to 'fixing' the problem.

Bystander intervention is not enough. This is why we embed evaluation into the Collective program where institutions go through a baseline assessment.

Institutions are required to go through various assessment and evaluation activities so they can follow the evidence informing the Collective while also catering their action plan to their own context. They do this in three stages:

  1. Institutions dedicated to addressing sexual violence (institution)

  2. Rigorous self-assessment (CORE evaluation)

  3. Targeted organisational change (customised plan).

When it comes to who evaluates the progress and actions of the institution, the Collective program requires that each institution establishes a Campus Leadership Team, comprising of victim-survivor advocates, Title IX staff, general counsel, upper administrators, campus and community law enforcement, student leaders, athletics, faculty and more!

We don’t see success if senior administrators don’t talk about sexual violence.

This Campus Leadership Team must come together from various parts of the institution and the community to address this issue, all with different strengths, perspectives, resources and roles to play in driving the change. My reflection on these sorts of groups that are established is the inherent power imbalances between members and how those with less power tend to be there on a voluntary basis, are students, activists and usually victim-survivors themselves. It is important to resource these people appropriately for their time and ensure that a committee of 15 people does not rely on two student volunteers to act on behalf of the institution's student population. We see this happen time and time again where there is reliance on free labour of student activists to do the work that the university won't.

To date, more than 150 institutions in the US have participated in the Collective, leading to the following outcomes in the two-year period:

  • Most institutions had their score increase in five of the six pillars

  • The average aggregate score went up by 50 points from the first self-assessment to the final self-assessment

  • Institutions became compliant with an average of three additional federal requirements

  • Institutions made progress on 85% of their identified objectives throughout the program.

Seems impactful to me!

Something to always remember when you hear someone say 'not my problem' or that they 'don't have the ability or power to enact change', is that ending sexual violence is everyone’s job. This is what Henkle and Henault reiterate again and again. Notably, Governments can't sit back any longer and ignore the sexual violence epidemic on campus. They need to realise that everyone has a role to play, including them.

In solidarity,

Camille Schloeffel

References / Learn more:

*Please note I use the term respondents to refer to perpetrators of sexual violence during this blog to reflect the language used by Henkle and her colleagues/employers in tertiary education in the Unites States.

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