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Organizational Communication of Title IX: Bridging the Divide

December 13, 2016

Headshot of communication researcher Kate Web

Headshot of communication researcher Kate Web
Photo: Matthew Weber, CLAgency

New assistant professor Kate Lockwood Harris’ research looks at the complex relationship between violence and communication. Violence has a negative impact beyond the violent act itself; it influences a person’s ability to get an education, succeed at work, have fulfilling relationships, and build strong communities. Communication techniques can either support or combat many kinds of violence.

Though one in five college women and nearly half of LGBT students are likely to experience sexual assault before graduation, in 2014, 91 percent of US campuses reported zero rapes. One of the central questions Harris is dissecting is how colleges respond to sexual violence in the context of Title IX, a federal law that requires universities to prevent assault and investigate when it happens. “Violence is a big problem at educational institutions, with serious consequences that affect students’ opportunities,” Harris says. “The way we talk about these issues plays an important role in negating this violence and its consequences.”

Harris' most recent publication in the journal Human Relations explains some reasons for the gap between reality and reports. University staff who have the authority to hire, fire, or grade someone, including many faculty members and graduate students, are required to make third-party reports to universities. They often do not understand that a description of an event a student tells them about counts as a reportable incident. “In order to remedy this problem, colleges need to be very clear not only about definitions of sexual assault,” Harris says, “but also about inaccurate cultural ideas that keep many people from recognizing sexual violence as such.”    

Some of Harris’s most rewarding work happened when she had the opportunity to collaborate with the National Center of Campus Public Safety. Working with experts in psychology, campus safety, student affairs, and the law, Harris helped develop training for university staff who investigate and adjudicate sexual assault. This training translates into a change in the way faculty and graduate students approach reporting an assault.

Harris describes one example of this training in action. “When people who have experienced assault talk about the incident, they often have a hard time recalling specific details of the event and telling a linear story about it,” she says. “Untrained investigators might think that the person is not telling the truth when, in fact, their communication challenges are a common response to trauma. Accordingly, investigators should not ask, ‘What happened next?’ repeatedly, since sexual assault victims may not be able to remember what happened first or last in the immediate wake of trauma. Instead, they can ask the person who was assaulted to tell whatever parts of the story they remember without concern for the order.” The training was designed to provide staff with a better understanding of the trauma that those who experience sexual assault face, and how to communicate with them most effectively.

According to Harris, “The people required to make official reports about sexual assaults that they either witness or hear about are forced to play two different, sometimes conflicting roles. They want to be a supportive person who respects the survivor’s wishes. But, on the flip side, they have an obligation to report the incident, which can exacerbate the loss of control that trauma victims experience.” It’s a tough dichotomy. Harris believes her research will help broaden college campus administrators’ understanding of Title IX while also providing resources for people to develop stronger communication skills that better support those who have had traumatizing experiences.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.