Sexual violence on college campuses is common. More than 1 in 10 students across 27 universities reported experiencing sexual violence since enrolling, according to a 2015 survey by the American Association of Universities.

About 85 to 90 percent of these assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows. Approximately half occur on a date. They occur most often in the man’s or woman’s home in the context of a party or a date. Fewer than 5 percent are reported to campus administrators or law enforcement.

So what can be done to help prevent sexual assault on campus and keep students safe? 

The Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, with support from the Bloomberg American Health Initiative, has some guidance for university administrators, summarized in a new report entitled A Public Health Approach to Reducing Sexual Assault.

The report is based on a literature review of research that looked at which interventions were currently being tested and evaluated on college campuses. 

The report outlines how the Haddon Matrix, one of the most widely used frameworks in the injury prevention field, can be applied to sexual violence. The Matrix explains injury as a function of time phases and influencing factors. The three phases include: 

  • Pre-event, before an event with the potential to cause an injury happens (e.g., before an assault)

  • During an event that can cause an injury (e.g., during an assault)

  • After the event occurs (e.g., after an assault). 

The Matrix also looks at influencing factors, which include: the host (e.g., the person who is at risk of injury, an assault victim); the agent, which impacts the host through a vehicle or vector (e.g., person/assailant, inanimate object/weapon); and the environment, both the social (e.g., alcohol policies) and physical (e.g., campus lighting). 
By combining the phases and factors in a matrix, multiple opportunities for intervention become apparent. Those opportunities fall into three buckets, or the 3Es: 

  • Engineering - Using engineering design and development strategies to create safer environments and products-. To prevent sexual assaults, such ideas might include the physical design of student housing and location of emergency call boxes. To date, however, these ideas have yet to be evaluated.

  • Enforcement - Implementing laws, regulations, codes and policies to shape the social and physical environment, and to influence the behavior of potential assault victims and assailants Despite their promise, however, the review found no examples of evaluations of such interventions.

  • Education - Providing counseling, campaigns, courses, media, and other strategies to shape the social environment, and to influence the behavior of potential assault victims and assailants. All of the evaluated interventions covered by the review were of educational approaches. Positive outcomes were reported by a majority (60 percent) of those that educated students about how to prevent victimization as well as those that trained bystanders to intervene. Interventions that targeted prevention of perpetration were not as successful, with only 25 percent reporting behavioral changes.

The Haddon Matrix analysis found that most studies focused on primary prevention of assaults, targeting individual students and their social environment. Bystander programs, which focus on all three phases of the Haddon Matrix and seek to change the social environment, have generally been shown to be effective at: increasing bystander efficacy, positive outcome expectancies for intervening, intent and willingness to intervene, and pro-social behaviors including engagement in active bystander behavior; and lowering rates of reported sexual victimization and sexual violence perpetration, sexual harassment, stalking victimization. There were no studies of policy enforcement or engineering interventions that could make the environment safer. 

The Haddon Matrix and the 3Es serve as useful frameworks to identify gaps in knowledge about how to prevent sexual assaults or reduce their impact on the lives of students, their families, and the campus community. The information in this report can help campus leaders build comprehensive solutions -- those that use education, enforcement, and engineering to prevent assaults, reduce their likelihood of causing injury, and improve outcomes after an assault.