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Utah’s Westminster College wants to know students’ thoughts on sex assault — but it’s not getting many answers

First Published      Last Updated Jul 16 2017 11:15 pm

Westminster College sees another year of poor participation in sexual-assault survey; school doesn’t plan to try again until 2019.

For the second year in a row, Westminster College will not publish the results of a campus survey about sexual assault — even as the federal government is investigating the school for potentially mishandling such a case.

In 2016, school officials said few students participated. This year, they said participants did not represent the diversity on campus.

Student leaders told The Salt Lake Tribune their peers were not taking the survey seriously: It was too long, administered too late in spring semester or had language that did not seem gender-neutral.

But school officials "still don't know why it didn't work and are trying to figure out how to motivate the entire student population to participate in these surveys," said Krista DeAngelis, a school spokeswoman.

And they're not going to try again until 2019, DeAngelis added.

Colleges across the U.S. have been moving toward conducting these surveys — meant to assess the prevalence of sexual assault and perceptions about campus services — after a push in 2014 from the Obama administration. The Utah Board of Regents this year approved a policy urging public campuses to survey students on these issues. Westminster is one of at least six of Utah's 10 largest colleges to do so.

Survey results can help colleges better understand whether students are being served appropriately by Title IX, a federal law that bars sex discrimination on campus. Under that law, schools must address sex assault by not only disciplining offenders but also protecting victims and eliminating the "hostile environment" created in the aftermath of an attack. A student who may have been the victim of a sexual assault is entitled to immediate services, such as changes in their housing and classes or more lenient deadlines.

The University of Utah has published findings from its survey, and Brigham Young University has said it plans to release its results in the fall. Both schools, along with Westminster, are under federal investigation for their handling of sexual assault complaints.

A 'tricky' task • After too few students responded to Westminster's survey in 2016, DeAngelis said, the school revamped it, including trimming it so it took 15 to 20 minutes to complete instead of 45.

Officials also launched a marketing campaign, which included posters, emails and outreach to classes and clubs during the two months the survey was open, said Sabi Lowder, student body vice president and Title IX student adviser. She added that students who completed it also could be entered into a drawing to win small gift cards.

"Getting people to respond is tricky," Lowder said. "Some people don't think it's a real issue. They don't believe it affects them."

In October 2016, the Department of Justice published best practices, advising schools that surveys should take about 15 minutes, and that students were more likely to respond if they received a $20 to $25 incentive.

Lowder said the school received more responses this year compared to last — an amount DeAngelis called "encouraging" but wouldn't quantify further. But Arikka Von, another school spokeswoman, said that significantly more women than men participated.

Ben Pok, Westminster's student body president, said students told him some questions "made it seem like women were always the victims: It patronized and belittled them. Some saw [the wording] as men being attacked."

Von said Westminster used a survey from the Office for Violence Against Women and Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Pok also suggested doing the survey in the beginning of the semester, instead of from February to April when students are busy with classes.

The feds suggest the survey should be administered toward the end of the school year.

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