New University of Utah center aims to prevent relationship and sexual violence on college campuses

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The University of Utah campus on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The new Center for Violence Prevention at the U., led by Chris Linder, will focus on the prevention of relationship and sexual violence among college students.

Leaders of a new center at the University of Utah hope their work will not only help people better understand relationship and sexual violence, but prevent it from happening in the future.

“We can offer safeguards for victims all day long, but if we’re not addressing perpetrators and common perpetrator behaviors, we’re really not going to be able to eradicate these issues on our campus," Kwynn Gonzalez-Pons, an advisory board member for the Center for Violence Prevention, said Tuesday during a virtual launch of the new program.

There’s already a lot of work being done locally and nationally around this topic, said Chris Linder, associate professor and special assistant to University President Ruth Watkins on violence prevention and education. Earlier this year, the U. launched its Gender-Based Violence Consortium.

What makes the Center for Violence Prevention unique is its explicit focus on prevention among college students, specifically those from “minoritized backgrounds," said Linder, the center’s director.

Relationship and sexual violence covers a wide range of issues, including sexual assault, rape, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking. For the past 60 years, the overall rate of women in college experiencing this type of violence hasn’t changed. It’s remained at 1 in 5, Linder said.

“Perpetrators target bisexual women, gay men, transgender people, Indigenous women and women with disabilities at even higher rates than their peers,” she said.

Linder said it’s “important to acknowledge that in one academic year, we had three people affiliated with our campus murdered by either intimate partners or dating partners of some sort.”

In 2018, student-athlete Lauren McCluskey was fatally shot outside her dorm by a man she had dated; investigations into the U.'s mishandling of her case have led to widespread reform. Medical resident Sarah Hawley was shot to death by her boyfriend in their home in January 2019. And in June last year, MacKenzie Lueck, a kinesiology major at the U., was killed by a man with whom she had communicated on a dating app.

“That really gave us, unfortunately ... some momentum to start to address the problem in a more public way,” Linder said.

Chris Linder is the director of the new Center for Violence Prevention at the University of Utah.

Plans may change due to the coronavirus pandemic, but during the center’s first year, Linder and her team want to engage with and educate people beyond those who are usually involved in discussions around relationship and sexual violence. They plan to hold workshops and use social media and a blog.

Linder said she’d hoped to also start working on in-depth campus climate studies this year at colleges across the U.S., but that’s not likely to happen due to COVID-19.

Generally, campuses use about four different climate studies to examine their culture around relationship and sexual violence by having students answer questions in an online survey, Linder said. Sometimes, there are prompts for students to expand on their responses, but surveyors aren’t actually interacting with students to understand what they’re talking about, she said.

With the U.'s Center for Violence Prevention’s climate studies, a research team would travel to campuses to survey students and get deeper answers. For instance, a survey might show 85% of students said they saw educational posters about interpersonal violence on campus, but it doesn’t tell what specifically students are learning from those posters, Linder said. Plus, the survey team can provide a fresh perspective about things that people who are at a college every day might overlook, she said.

The center is also focused on coordinating and funding research focused on prevention, perpetrators and peer culture. They plan to create a course for graduate students to study relationship and sexual violence.

Most of the research on this topic has focused on victims and victim risk factors, Linder said, while very little is centered around perpetrators and “what makes someone at risk for committing violence.”

“It’s much easier to tell people if you ... do these 10 things, you won’t get raped, than it is to tell people to stop raping your friends" and dig into how and why this violence happens, and how to prevent it, she said.

Linder and others said they hope the center will become a national leader in answering those questions, and they want students to be involved in that work at “every level.” People interested in learning more can sign up for the center’s mailing list by contacting cvp@utah.edu.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.