New study to collect data on campus views of sexual assault and relationship violence

When Jess Klein arrived at Carnegie Mellon University in 2013, the school was still reeling over the Beta Theta Pi scandal.

As the first-ever coordinator of gender programs and sexual violence prevention, Klein was in charge of re-imagining the university’s programs, public perception, and results — no small task. But Klein, in her one-and-a-half-year tenure, has worked to change the campus culture surrounding sexual assault and relationship violence prevention (SARVP), including revamping the survivor support network (SSN) and helping to pilot the university’s first-ever SARV student study.

The survey, made available on April 5 to students at the Pittsburgh campus, will be open until April 27, according to Ashley Sobhani, a junior global studies major who sits on the SARVP committee and is an active member of the SSN and Got Consent?.

“This survey was going to be released next fall, but we decided that if we could do it now, we should,” Klein said. “We know this is important, and we’ve got to do it right.”

Designed by Janel A. Sutkus, the director of institutional research and analysis at Carnegie Mellon, the survey is individualized: Every time a student answers a question, their answer will determine the next question.

“We need this survey on campus, because we realized that there was a very small group ... that had experience with [SARV prevention],” Sobhani said. “The bubble was too small and not representative of our campus.”

Sobhani said that, through the survey, they will be able to target people who have a part in perpetuating SARV issues on campus.
We’ll be able to know and understand their part in it, make them aware of it, and how they can help to change if need be, especially through bystanders,” Sobhani said.

The study is the result of a collaboration between Klein, Director of Upperclass and Greek Student Life Lucas Christian, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Holly Hippensteel, Dean of Student Affairs Gina Casalengo, Associate Dean of Student Affairs John Hannon, and Assistant Vice President of General Counsel Dan Munsch, according to Klein.

The study relies heavily on the SSN to both spread awareness of the survey and encourage students to participate.

The SSN is a re-vamped version of what used to be called the sexual assault advisors, according to Klein. The program trains campus community members to respond to requests for help from sexual assault survivors and focuses on changing the perception and stigma of sexual assault on campus. While on campus, Klein has trained over 150 members of the SSN.

“All I’m doing is telling society how to be people — teaching them about why this exists in the first place: because there’s a lack of respect,” Klein said. “My only contribution is really to tell people that we can change that. I want people to know that we have an SSN on campus. I want it to be engrained in the culture here that we have a support network.”

Evan Wineland, junior information systems major and chair of the undergraduate Student Senate, has also been trained by Klein. He said that her work has made him think harder about the way he acts: “Jess challenges all of us to rethink what we’ve been conditioned by society to take for granted.”

“The bigger picture is getting people to understand that we create this problem,” Klein said. “This isn’t biological. This isn’t DNA. This isn’t genetic. This is a socially constructed problem. These problems are more than what we see. I wish we could all look at the complexities of it and understand what it is.”

From the outside, it can appear that fighting sexual assault and relationship violence on campus is an uphill battle.

The number of sexual assaults on campus has never been higher and continues to rise. Carnegie Mellon reported in its 2014 Annual Security and Fire Safety Report that the number of on-campus assaults reported tripled from 2011 to 2013.

This statistic could indicate a higher willingness to report and that it is becoming easier for survivors to report their experiences at Carnegie Mellon, an assumption that this study could verify.

While the study is designed to help report more accurate numbers than those contained in the annual report, it is also designed to gauge on-campus sentiment regarding the efforts, according to Klein and Sobhani.

“There hasn’t even ever been a survey of this type before,” Sobhani said. “This survey is powerful in that it looks in-depth at how students feel about these issues on campus. The Clery Act is helpful for spitting out statistics, but we need real student feedback.”

According to Klein, the student attitude at the university is still cynical of the university’s transparency, and she often struggles with students’ views of these situations.

“We’re doing a lot of things right here,” Klein said.

“I was a student once, but now I see it from the administration’s side. There are a lot of people who care about this very much and are taking this survey and the results we’ll get from it very seriously. We’re lucky here. [President Subra Suresh] supports it, [Casalengo] supports it, and they’re amazing advocates. It’s a top-down approach.”

Both Klein and Sobhani stressed the importance of students’ honest participation in the survey. The results of the survey will dictate how both Klein’s office and the SSN will designate their time in the future, Klein said.

“It’s confidential, so even if this is just a situation that only came up once in your life, this is your chance to vocalize it and how you feel about it to the administration on your own time from your room,” Sobhani said.

Klein is encouraged by the students she works with and the administration and faculty members that support both her and her work at Carneige Mellon: “The mission is to get people to understand the complexities of gender-based violence. Once they have an understanding, that changes perspectives of people. That’s where we start.... Stuff like this isn’t easy to talk about or assess, so the data from this survey is going to tell us where we are as an institution and what we need to change to make it better here for everyone.”