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How parents can help prevent campus sexual assault

Parents can play a key role in pushing colleges and universities to improve their sexual assault policies.

Incoming freshmen move into a campus dormitory at the University of Colorado Boulder on Aug. 18, 2020.Mark Makela/Getty

The pattern of sexual assault on college campuses is so consistent that there’s a term for when assaults are most likely to occur: “The Red Zone.” It’s generally the time between the start of the fall semester and Thanksgiving break, when freshman and transfer students are especially vulnerable because of weak social networks and a lack of familiarity with the campus or its resources. This year, as more schools reopen, some experts are worried that the Red Zone might be even worse than usual because many sophomores will be just as vulnerable as freshmen: new to and unfamiliar with the campus.

But despite the Red Zone’s severity — more than half of campus sexual assaults occur during this period — administrators don’t typically acknowledge it when they’re recruiting new students or even during orientation. And when the topic does come up, it’s often brushed over. That’s not surprising given that schools don’t like to advertise their statistics on sexual assault and often underreport crimes on their campuses. But while schools seem reluctant to meaningfully reform their policies on sexual assault and to provide students with better resources — like publicly posting their policies, improving guidance on how to navigate procedures after an assault, and allowing for confidentiality in reporting — there’s one group that can help push colleges and universities in the right direction: parents.


“Orientations for parents are pretty common on campuses these days. If during the orientation sessions for parents, if the college administrators don’t talk about sexual assault, ask about it. Make it a legitimate topic of conversation,” said Susan B. Sorenson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “After Campus Sexual Assault: A Guide for Parents.” She shared how one mother asked about it at a parent orientation with hundreds in the room. “A woman bravely raised her hand and asked, ‘You’ve told us about mental health services, you’ve told us about the gym, you’ve told us about academic advising … but you haven’t said a word about campus sexual assault.’”

Universities know that parents are ordinarily involved in helping their children figure out which school to attend. Oftentimes, they help finance their children’s degrees. That’s why administrators court parents just as much as they do students. And one of the most important factors for parents in knowing which school is best suited for their child is campus safety.


“[When] parents start to ask these questions of administrators, it gives the message that parents care about this stuff as much as they do about academic advising and the dorm rooms and the policing or security system,” Sorenson said. “Then I think administrators will start to pay closer attention.”

Colleges and universities have made some progress in recent years, in large part because of student-led activism that has pressured administrators to improve campus policies. And in some cases, student-led organizations have succeeded in changing state laws to require colleges to provide their students with better resources and to work on prevention. Many parents have partaken in some of this activism, but going a step further and proactively forcing administrators to answer questions about sexual assault policies may go a long way. In fact, when students and their parents are figuring out which school to commit to, making sexual assault policies a key factor in their decision would nudge colleges to make those policies a priority.


Parents’ roles in addressing and reducing sexual assault on college campuses also goes beyond focusing on school policy. In her reporting for her book, which gives parents advice on how to navigate the process of helping their child following an assault, Sorenson found that many parents give their daughters advice about avoiding frat parties and making their own drinks rather than trusting a stranger’s concoction. But that advice puts the onus of sexual assault prevention on women, who make up the vast majority of victims of campus sexual assault.

That’s why parents should talk to their sons too, Sorenson says, about informed consent, bystander intervention, and how they can help friends who might be in a dangerous situation, among other things.

Many of these discussions can be overwhelming for parents to navigate, in part because of a generational divide and the fact that colleges and social norms have changed since they attended school. Sorenson’s book is a helpful guide, particularly when it comes to supporting their children through the trauma of sexual assault. The more parents get involved — and the more proactive they are — the sooner school policies will change for the better.

Abdallah Fayyad is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at abdallah.fayyad@globe.com. Follow him @abdallah_fayyad.