A widely discussed concept, the Red Zone refers to the first six to ten weeks of the Fall semester when an estimated 50% of campus sexual assaults occur. When considering the Red Zone this upcoming Fall 2021 semester, it is vital to recognize that unique circumstances stemming from the ongoing pandemic may profoundly impact this coming time frame. Our efforts to educate around sexual violence, consent, and bystander intervention must shift to account for these emerging nuances.
To start, let’s discuss why the Red Zone is likely to be different this year.
The lingering effects of COVID19 continue to ripple throughout our campuses. Many of our students are likely still processing trauma from COVID, whether the loss of a loved one, community member, mentor, or friend. Also, many incoming students are likely grappling with a loss of identity. This can include mourning the loss of routine experiences and rituals they once anticipated as hallmarks of their lives, such as in-person graduations, social functions, or community events. These feelings are also true for returning students who have missed countless routine or expected aspects of their collegiate experiences.
The complexities of these traumas might manifest in two ways.
First, the impacts of potential incidents of sexual violence might intensify. Our students may already feel looming senses of unease, anxiety, and depression. Adding on the trauma of an incident of sexual violence may compound these lingering traumas. This is also true with Secondary Survivorship or the concept that if sexual violence occurs in a social circle or to a peer, those close to this primary survivor can also experience trauma.
Second, students may seek increased social experiences to retake a sensation of “normal.” Having missed expected events or community traditions, they might look to increased social functions to replicate their lost feelings. These desires might increase the frequency of social functions, creating a potential rise in the use of alcohol or other drugs while furthering the power imbalance of those with resources and social structures to coordinate such events.
Another novel aspect of this Fall’s Red Zone is the comparative lack of training that many incoming or existing students have likely received since April 2020. Moving to entirely virtual teaching left many individuals “Zoomed Out.” Faced with the need to either educate around core curriculum or conduct training around concepts such as consent, sexual violence prevention, and beyond, many institutions prioritized the former. Even when institutions offered risk reduction training, it was not uncommon to see participants that were “present” on a virtual program but, in truth, unengaged.
This lack of training will further compound as students arrive on campus. Many institutions supplement their in-person education with online modules offered through outside partners. Where these programs can reach vast populations with standardized information, I imagine that many students, burnt out on online education, may struggle to learn from this model.
The last novelty is new or continually changing policies around social distancing. Though many institutions’ current restrictions around gatherings may be lessened compared to last year, there is no accounting for how this will change. Even now, as I prepare to visit many regular orientation partners, one all too common refrain is, “though this is our policy now, I am unsure what it might be in the coming weeks.” As we reassess policies to combat the Delta variant, I can see a renewed struggle between how these policies impact student perceptions of bystander intervention.
Throughout Spring 2021, it was not uncommon to hear of student organizations and informal groups of students attempting to skirt policies about social gatherings. The issue that I continue to worry about for both campus-recognized or informal gatherings correlates to bystander intervention. Where we can train our campus populations in concepts of bystander intervention and reinforce being active bystanders, I fear that many students will weigh the cost of intervening with the fear of facing repercussions for violating social distancing policies.
Weighing these two needs can create a contradiction. Many students may desire to speak up with the fear of facing punishment for violating social distancing policies. Uncertainty and fluctuating policies might deter their willingness to be active bystanders both during the moment or after when considering reporting.
This combination of factors creates an alarming set of circumstances where students may be less equipped to confront sexual violence, less aware of how alcohol is used in perpetration, and clamoring to engage in social activities where power gaps exist, empowering predatory behavior or failures to communicate consent. To cap this off, students might fear punishment due to violating fluctuating social distancing policies, thus failing to engage as active bystanders or report potential incidents.
So, what can we do? As overwhelming as these aspects might feel, I see a handful of solutions that might help prevent sexual violence and normalize the healthy behaviors that communities should adopt. Here are a few recommendations to consider adopting around the Red Zone:
Heavily Invest in Campus Relevant Training
One of the first aspects of tackling this year’s Red Zone is ensuring that students receive relevant, meaningful, and engaging training. Where possible, this training should be in-person and constantly adapting to the ongoing needs of your specific populations. Live, in-person training has the benefit of continual customization. Online programs can be meaningful, but if pre-recorded programs fail to address the shifting realities that participants face, it may cause them to check out.
When considering relevant training, I also recommend prioritizing cultural and behavior change over policies. Yes, students must understand our campus policies. We must be careful in how we emphasize training around policies. I cannot tell you the number of times I have watched an audience check out because training started with reviewing text-heavy slides meant to “teach” campus policy.
Above all, remember that we must customize any aspect of training to the population receiving the training. The more we can tweak our programs to meet our students’ exact needs, the better. Taking the extra time to tailor our programs can mean a world of difference in driving engagement.
Peer Education is Critical
Research shows that peer-to-peer education is one of the most effective tools for addressing sexual violence prevention and bystander intervention. When we equip student leaders to facilitate conversations around these issues, it can create a more engaging dialogue. Peer educators are often able to address issues from a highly realistic and relevant perspective. How student participants talk about concerns with their peers can also differ, creating a more honest dialogue that can result in further relevance.
When looking to design new training initiatives, consider how you can mobilize peer educators. Whether it is a robust program or something as simple as customized discussion guides to deploy at existing student organization meetings, we should welcome any chance to deploy peer education.
Work to Ensure Social Distancing Policies Include Amnesty Clauses
No matter whether your campus is currently enforcing social distancing policies or if this consideration reemerges, ensure that your campus policies include amnesty clauses. As we ask our students to engage as active bystanders, we need to remove barriers to them acting at the moment or coming forward after the fact.
As with any policy, consider how you are communicating this information. If an amnesty policy is overly complex and lengthy, the likelihood is most students will not read it. Disengagement is likely if it is only located in a code of conduct or one web page. When offering information around any policy, I recommend publishing them in multiple places and using clear, simplified language to summarize a policy.
If leading policy training, always begin with a high-level review that simplifies the policy to a maximum of two to three sentences. From there, if you cover the policy in greater depth, keep each slide to a limited number of sentences and accent relevant points.
If marketing or promoting a policy around campus, be careful where you display that information. Do not hide it in the middle of a packet or guide. Put it front and center, offering a condensed version of the policy in the most straightforward language with links for more information.
Create Campus-Specific Virtual Resources that Exist Online
One reality of the pandemic that will continue to linger is that some of our training will likely need to be online. Virtual training is not insufficient, but it needs to be relevant and engaging. Above all, online training needs to be short.
Where mandating online training might assist in meeting Title IX regulations, we should always endeavor to create virtual resources that our students can interact with at any time. The key to success with these resources are three-fold:
- Content is highly specific, targeted around one issue, topic, or campus resources.
- These virtual resources are easy to access or find.
- These resources are short and easy to consume.
When considering online content creation, I always recommend that campus professionals and student leaders think of how they might be using video created by and for their campus. Videos are often easier to engage with than walls of text.
When creating a series of campus-specific videos, keep the media to no more than two to three minutes, offering a brief review of one specific topic. These videos can be nestled on campus-specific web pages or further plugged through social media channels.
Often, all you will need to record is a basic script, a quiet filming location, and a smartphone or webcam. As social media continues to show, audiences are willing to engage with relevant content even if it does not have a high-production value. Creating videos can be a reasonably low-cost initiative that can pay off in dividends by producing more relevant content that truly addresses your various populations’ unique cultures and concerns.
Acknowledge the Differences of this Year
As research about Generation Z continues to emerge, one notable point is that many of our current students crave honesty, especially from those perceived to hold authority. When we fail to address an issue from a realistic perspective, the outcome can be a loss of engagement or feelings of disillusion.
When considering everything from training initiatives to marketing around the Red Zone and sexual violence prevention initiatives, be clear about the differences that students might face this year. Shying away from the realities of the pandemics and lingering fears or uncertainty can come across as pandering or inauthentic.
One important note I always like to reinforce is that being honest about the situation does not need to be overly pessimistic. Especially in prevention-based situations, people do not respond well to negativity. Relying on negative emotions to promote behavioral changes often results in a quick flash of emotional engagement but, in the long-term, shows diminished adoption of principles or long-term learning.
When addressing these aspects, attempt to emphasize the positives or possibilities. Although we face complex realities, we should never diminish the potential for hope or trust that things can change. It is 100% possible to address the severe gravity of the issues of sexual violence while still cultivating feelings of hope for what can come.
Meet Students Where They Are, Especially Potentially Resistant Populations
Though I dislike leading mandated education programs, I get how frustrating it can feel to host a program without requirements for attendance for only a handful of students to show up. Especially when considering reaching populations that might seem resistant towards further sexual violence prevention training, I understand how easy it is to “require” training.
One of the best solutions I’ve found when working with particularly resistant populations is meeting them where they are in the content we present to these populations and when and how we ask for their time.
Meeting them where they are might entail tweaking the content offered. No matter our end goals, if we want to address an issue from point E, but a specific population is still on point A, we cannot skip all the other learning along the way. It might feel frustrating to tone down our content; sometimes, less is more impactful in the long term. If a population is already resistant to showing up, sitting through an hour-long train will likely cause them to check out. No amount of relevant content will engage them. In these cases, offering a shorter snippet, say a 30-minute training around one specific issue, might be more meaningful than trying to integrate more concepts and losing their attention.
The best way to know what education to offer is to work proactively with these student populations to collect feedback about their specific needs. Where I love engaged student audiences, it is often better for me to hear from the skeptical or outright resistant participant. The information they offer can often be instrumental in helping me tweak my programs to address their concerns instead of letting biases or beliefs linger unsaid. Consider how you collect feedback or survey populations before events to learn where you might tweak your education.
Another aspect is removing barriers to engagement. Instead of requiring a student group or population to carve more time out of an already busy schedule, can you go to them and their existing structured schedules? For some populations, this might mean latching training onto their existing meetings or gatherings. For other populations, this might mean targeting them in first-year seminars.
Lastly, meeting them where they are does not advocate for allowing toxic or harmful mentalities, beliefs, or systems to continue. It means being realistic about the limitations and obstacles we might face and navigating that reality instead of pretending that it does not exist.
I get the significant amount of information we must consider about the complexities of this Fall 2021 Red Zone. As mentioned, I always try to approach this issue from a place of hope. This can seem like an overwhelming amount of information to consider and cover for incoming populations. I don’t think it needs to be. By tweaking how we are approaching this issue, inviting student populations and peers to be an active part of this conversation, and approaching these issues from a frank perspective, I firmly believe we can successfully implement some of the changes needed to better address these topics in ways that cultivate greater buy-in and more meaningful engagement.
Further, I’ve seen remarkable resilience from our existing and incoming students. Watching how our current and incoming populations have handled countless issues over the last year and a half only reaffirms that our communities are primed to advance meaningful, equitable change around this topic, along with countless others.
Though I am always cognizant of the realities we face, I never have experienced a lack of hope about the potential for change. Where the pandemic continues to hold a mirror to the countless inequities that plague our country, I am hopeful at how enthusiastic our students are about addressing these inequities. I am hopeful that the last year may have cultivated a further sense of empathy as we realize the importance of building community in facing these critical issues.
As we continue to grapple with these issues, I am hopeful that we will allow this resilience and empathy to guide our actions.