In the early 1990s, when Paul Schewe, PhD, was working as a clinical psychology intern at a campus counseling center, he noticed that almost every female student who came to see him had a history of sexual assault. One client in particular deeply affected Schewe-a young woman who went drinking with her friends to celebrate her 21st birthday. Her live-in boyfriend, angry that she was out late without him, raped her when she came home that night.
The woman came to the counseling center because of academic, relationship and sleep problems that arose after the assault. As she talked with Schewe, he began to wonder how many other women the boyfriend had raped, and how many more women he'd hurt in the future.
"I started to think about what kind of life experiences he had that enabled him to rape his girlfriend and, conversely, what kind of experiences would he have had to have as a young man that would prevent him from ever victimizing women?" says Schewe, now an associate research professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "That's when I started looking at what kind of experiences can we provide to our young men to keep them from raping."
Ever since, Schewe has spent his career developing sexual assault-prevention programs. To further his efforts, the American Psychological Foundation (APF) recently awarded him a $20,000 Violence Prevention and Intervention Grant. The grant program, begun in 2003 to advance violence-prevention research and programming, will enable Schewe to test the effectiveness of Web-based and in-person training of prevention educators-and bridge what he sees as the disconnect between research and practice in this area.
"There are hundreds of rape-prevention programs described in the literature, and almost none of them are being widely used," says Schewe. "And then if you look out in the field at rape crisis centers, the people in the trenches are using programs that aren't being carefully evaluated."
Pinpointing best practices
Schewe's APF grant research is an extension of work he began in 1999 with the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ICASA) to improve state-wide sexual assault prevention programming. About 30 rape-crisis agencies fall under the umbrella of the coalition, and their staff members generate programs for use with kindergarten-to college-age students.
"In general, how prevention educators developed their programs is they took materials left from previous programs, and begged, borrowed or stole information from other prevention educators," says Schewe.
Schewe and members of ICASA recognized that some of this cobbled-together programming was better than others, and that all the programs needed to be systematically evaluated for effectiveness.
Thus, with funding from ICASA, Schewe surveyed 29 agencies to determine their coverage of such content areas as communication skills, gender roles, consent versus coercion, empathy for victims and how to help an abused friend. He also collected information on the number of sessions the prevention educators presented, and the educators' gender, age, race and teaching experience.
Schewe also surveyed 3,000 students before and after they participated in these programs to determine what they had learned. He used the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale and other scales that were collaboratively developed with the prevention educators to assess women's likelihood of using safety skills and men's likelihood of committing sexual assault. The scale also evaluates both sexes' relationship skills and whether they would intervene to help a friend at a party.
"In general, we found that all prevention programs had a positive impact on students in terms of their attitudes, beliefs and behavioral intentions," says Schewe. "But there was also a lot of variability. Some programs had a fairly large effect on their students; others had a small effect."
Among many other findings, Schewe found that programs were more effective when they used multiple, shorter sessions of less than 50 minutes each, and when they used male/female teams of prevention educators. Programs that discussed how to help a friend who was sexually assaulted and addressed healthy relationship skills were most effective. Younger, less experienced educators were as effective as older, more experienced presenters, and the presenter's race didn't have to match that of the audience members for the programming to work. The researchers also found that programs heavy on statistics were relatively ineffective, and that younger students changed their attitudes more readily than older students.
On the road, or online?
Schewe didn't simply publish his data-he put his findings to use by inviting educators from the top five most effective prevention programs to share their skills with their peers.
At four regional meetings in Illinois, the educators provided small audiences with outlines and handouts from their programs, showed video clips, role-played activities, described discussion topics and shared tips on how to engage students. The small-group format allowed for plenty of discussion regarding how to tailor the programs to particular audiences, says Schewe. He also traveled around Illinois to share his findings with state and regional educators. However, his experience on the road made him wonder whether there was an easier way to disseminate his information.
"It was expensive and time consuming to travel the country meeting with [educators]," he says. "So I thought, 'Would a Web-based training be both effective and cost-effective?'"
To test this idea, Schewe will use the APF grant to select two state sexual assault coalitions from states other than Illinois. In one state, he plans to hold statewide meetings to share effective programming techniques. For educators in the other state, he will provide a Web site with training programs on best practices. The online class will include an interactive training manual, a blog that allows educators to share their experiences, self-assessments, white papers and access to consultants.
"Dr. Schewe's proposal was chosen for his evidence-based approach in training sexual assault-prevention educators to reduce sexual violence. Approximately one in four women will be sexually assaulted in the United States alone, and APF is proud to provide a grant to promote cutting-edge work to curb this problem in our society," says APF President Dorothy Cantor, PsyD.
Schewe hopes that the empirically evaluated programs will be more effective and will also garner more respect in school systems that might otherwise be reluctant to host sexual assault-prevention programs.
"A lot of educators used the results of the evaluation to get into high schools where perhaps they were having trouble convincing principals to let them in," he says. "They were able to say, 'Our program has demonstrated effectiveness.'"
Ultimately, Schewe wants to convince educators that rape-prevention programming is a valuable use of classroom time.
"With No Child Left Behind, schools want to spend every moment of their day working to increase their test scores," he says. "But I think schools are learning that if they attend to the social and emotional needs of students, it also helps test scores improve."
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