Athletics Administration – Eliminating Sexual Violence in Schools

The breadth of research in EXSS is wide and encompasses basic / laboratory, clinical / translational, business / marketing, and legal / ethical based science.  This week we highlight work performed in the area of sport law around the issue of sexual violence / harassment.  This is often a difficult topic to discuss, but one that requires an open dialogue to promote an environment that prevents such events from occurring.  The scholarship conducted by our faculty in this area plays an important role in establishing the legal and ethical responsibilities of administrators in these and other highly important areas.  This week’s post features the work of Dr. Barbara Osborne, an associate professor in our Sport Administration programs.

Why did you do this study?

Screen Shot 2014-02-23 at 10.52.18 AMSexual harassment is a serious problem within U.S. schools, from elementary schools through colleges and universities.  Over 80% percent of students experience some form of sexual harassment during their school years.  In a study released in November 2011, almost half of students in grades 7 through 12 indicated that they were sexually harassed during the 2010-2011 school year.   About 44 percent of students were sexually harassed in person, with another 30% sexually harassed through texting, email, social networking sites, or other electronic means.  In colleges and universities, about 20% of college women and just over 6% of college men reported incidents of sexual assault or attempted assault.

Sexual assault and sexual violence are issues of concern within schools in general, but administrators have been inconsistent and ineffective at dealing with these issues on college campuses in particular.  Many perceive sexual assault and sexual violence strictly as a criminal issue and defer to the criminal justice system.  Although these acts of violence should be reported to the proper law enforcement authorities, reporting does not shift the civil responsibility of the institution to the criminal justice system.  Additionally, while the criminal justice system may address the culpability of the perpetrator of the violence, it does not examine the processes in place within the academic institution for preventing, reporting, and addressing these acts of violence.

Within college campuses, athletics administrators should be particularly concerned about sexual assault and sexual violence.  Past studies indicate that masculine dominated environments such as athletics teams promote objectification of women.  This, combined with the athletes’ expectation of entitlement, peer support and approval, rewards for engaging in aggressive behavior, and failure of coaches or administrators to discipline athletes, has been found to increase the likelihood that athletes will commit acquaintance rape, sexual violence, and sexual assault.

In 2011, the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” to all schools to clarify their responsibilities in preventing, addressing and eliminating sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools.  Dozens of students have stepped forward in the past few years and filed complaints against their schools for failing to properly address complaints of sexual violence, including a complaint filed by three students and a former administrator at UNC.  Additionally, there have been serious accusations involving student-athletes as the perpetrator of sexual violence.

Given the changes in the law, the confusion of school administrators in understanding their legal obligations relative to sexual harassment and sexual violence, and the prevalence of student-athlete involvement in sexual assault and rape, it was important to examine this legal issue, and provide intercollegiate athletics administrators with a comprehensive guide to their obligations in eliminating sexual violence in schools.

What did you do and what did you find in this study?

Legal research is a little different than the scientific/experimental research that has been featured previously in this blog.  Instead of collecting data by measuring performance variables of research subjects, the data in legal research is extracted from legislation, regulations, and the court’s decisions in legal cases.  To determine what the legal obligations of intercollegiate athletics administrators are relative to student-athletes accused of sexual harassment and/or sexual violence, I started with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1975, legislation which broadly protects against sex discrimination in school programs or activities that receive federal funding.  Sexual harassment is sex discrimination, so I then reviewed several regulatory documents promulgated by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights:  Sexual Harassment Guidance: Harassment of Students by School Employees, Other Students, and Third Parties (1997), Revised Sexual Harassment Guidance:  Harassment of Students by School Employees, Other Students, and Third Parties (2001), and the Dear Colleague Letter: Sexual Violence (2011).  Additionally, dozens of cases were examined, including three federal cases and one state case involving student-athletes at high profile institutions such as the University of Colorado, University of Georgia, Arizona State University, and the University of Washington.  All of the information from all of these sources was then synthesized, organized, and applied to the intercollegiate athletics context.

How do these findings impact the public?

Athletics coaches and administrators who fully understand their obligations under Title IX are in the best position to create an environment that discourages sexual harassment and sexual violence.  They are also in the best position to “lessen the harm to students if, despite their best efforts, harassment occurs.” In a situation where a student-athlete is accused of sexual harassment or violence, the coach or administrator’s initial instinct may be to protect the student-athlete (and the reputation of the athletics program).  The legal “data” examined in this study makes it clear that it is unacceptable to try to hide acts of sexual harassment, sexual assault or sexual violence committed by student-athletes by handling things within the athletics department.

Recommendations are made for athletics department officials to adhere to the standard university policy and procedures.  Student-athletes who are accused of sexual harassment or sexual violence must be addressed immediately, and removed from campus and athletics participation if the student-athlete poses any safety risk to the campus community.  Discipline of student-athletes should be administered through the standard student disciplinary system within the school, and punishment should be consistent with discipline of any alleged sexual harasser or perpetrator of sexual violence.  Failure to comply may result in Title IX liability for the institution.

In order to assure that the athletics program does not pose an unnecessary risk of liability for the university, athletics administrators, coaches and student-athletes should be educated about sexual harassment and sexual violence and the mechanisms for reporting such incidents.  Similarly, athletics administrators and the general public (fans) need to be educated about the differences between the criminal justice system and proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a student-athlete committed a crime involving sexual violence, and the civil law responsibility of an educational institution that operates under a preponderance of the evidence standard in determining whether a student-athlete engaged in sexual harassment, sexual misconduct or sexual violence which requires administrative punishment. Athletics administrators must also be educated that failure to comply with the law could also lead to personal liability beyond the institution’s liability.

Future research in this area may include follow up studies to determine: 1) the effectiveness of sexual violence education and prevention program in athletics populations, 2) how much athletics administrators actually understand about their legal obligations in this area and the policies and procedures in place at their institutions, and/or 3) differences in prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual violence involving student-athletes based on the athletics culture of the institution and/or by team affiliation.

 EXSS Impact

Slide1We are fortunate to have a wide range of expertise in EXSS that ranges from experts in basic science to legal / translational science.  Thus, we are able to work as a collective unit to take findings from our individual laboratories / centers / institutes and ultimately translate these findings to public policy.  This week’s post,  discussing recommendations for policies to prevent and handle sexual assault, is an example of how our work can lead to policies that impact society to improve quality of life.