The Shutdown's Awful Effect on Campus Violence Prevention Programs

As the government shutdown enters its second week, many Americans are becoming increasingly frustrated by the temporary suspension of important government programs and departments. One group that has been affected by the shutdown but has not been as present in the discussions of the shutdown's effects are student sexual assault survivors and student sexual assault prevention activists on college and university campuses nationwide.

The government shutdown means a temporary closing of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which handles all Title IX and Clery Act violation allegations. And it affects the work of the Office of Violence Against Women or OVAW: an office of the U.S. Department of Justice that provides "grants to reduce domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking on campus program."

As a sexual violence prevention activist, the temporary suspension of investigations into colleges and universities that have allegedly violated Title IX and/or the Clery Act is incredibly frustrating. The urgency surrounding the importance of investigations into Title IX and Clery Act violations at institutions such as Occidental College, Swarthmore College, and University of Southern California has been tirelessly driven by student activists and movements such as the Know Your IX campaign, and the postponement of violation investigations due to the shutdown only adds insult to injury.

Equally exasperating is the fact that the Campus Grant program offered by OVAW, which empowers colleges and universities to establish and activate sexual violence prevention programs that reduce and eliminate sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence and harassment, will be temporarily interrupted. The Campus Grant program has been integral to the establishment of sexual violence prevention programs such as the Violence Prevention Intervention Program at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey. BCC’s Violence Prevention Intervention Program provides on- and off-campus counseling programs and health services as well as information on local domestic violence shelters, campus security procedures if a sexual assault is reported, and options for students who wish to pursue legal action against perpetrators of sexual violence.

The program at BCC is funded by Grant No. 2009-WA-A-AX-0026, which is awarded by OVAW. It has taken BCC staff, administrators, and student activists (called "Student Ambassadors" at BCC) years of work, research and coalition building within the both the campus and the local community to develop a coordinated community response to acts of sexual violence that affect BCC students. Key players included student activists, faculty members, the vice president of the college, the head of campus security, local law enforcement, representatives from the local domestic violence shelter, and social workers.

"We really worked to create a true ‘Coordinated Community Response,’ " said Professor Shari Franschman, a criminal justice professor who spearheaded the implementation of the Violence Prevention Intervention Program at BCC. "It did not happen overnight. It has been a process of meeting monthly with both internal and external partners. For example, one of our other challenges was the implementation of our bystander intervention program as a commuter, two-year school. At first we tried to do bystander intervention with a faculty member who had six hours of release time, but six hours just wasn’t enough to conduct the student trainings. To get bystander intervention going we had to have someone designated just for hosting bystander intervention training programs, which required the support of the administration [as well as the funding from the Department of Justice Grant]. And, being a two-year commuter school means we have a high turnover of students and we have to host trainings more frequently than four-year institutions."

Without the government grant from OVAW, the establishment of the Violence Prevention Intervention Center may not have been possible. BCC is a two-year community college composed entirely of commuter students (many of which are first-generation college students and/or first-generation American citizens), and the college has largely depended on government grants and the privately funded Bergen Community College Foundation to fund academic and community based programming. Since 1982, the BCC Foundation has raised approximately $19 million for student scholarships, faculty and staff development, construction, and special programs. While this may seem like a decent chunk of change, it is actually a relatively minuscule amount when compared to the endowments of private four-year colleges such as Amherst College ($1.6 billion endowment) or Swarthmore College ($1.44 billion endowment) and private universities such as the University of Southern California ($3.48 billion endowment).With these figures in mind, the need for government funding for innovative sexual violence prevention programs at BCC and other similar two-year public colleges becomes even more urgent and apparent. 

BCC has applied for a second, similar grant from the Department of Justice that would provide funds for the creation and implementation of an online training and assessment program for the college’s public safety employees to better prepare them to address issues of sexual assault and to further develop the bystander intervention program. However the government shutdown means that the review process of grant applications that would either establish new or expand existing sexual violence prevention programs on college campuses has been put on hold. This, , in turn, will slow down not only the acceptance of grant proposals but also will delay the distribution of funds for accepted proposals, and obstruct the ability of these colleges to implement programs that prevent sexual violence in their community. 

"As a criminal justice professor I’m always surprised by what students are used to and willing to accept," said Professor Franschman. "And I would like our program to change that."

Hopefully, Congress will find a solution to their differences sooner rather than later so Americans can go back to work — whether that means creating cultural change on college campuses through government-funded programs or reopening closed national parks. In the meantime, I have faith that student sexual violence prevention activists and allied faculty will continue to put pressure on their institutions to establish comprehensive sexual violence prevention programs and survivor support services.