Psychology :: Peer intervention combats violence against women

Combining research and practice, the University of Kentucky is taking steps to eradicate violence against women by focusing on peer influence and intervention.

“To be an effective catalyst for change, there must be a marriage between research and the programs we develop,” said Dorothy Edwards, director of the UK Violence Intervention and Prevention Center (formerly known as Women?s Place).

“Our programs here at UK are multidisciplinary and innovative, combining information we have obtained from research in the fields of public health, social sciences, behavioral science, and medicine. Our goal is to translate the empirical data into programs that work – that effectively reduce the incidence of violence throughout our community.”

The Violence Intervention and Prevention (VIP) Center has recently been awarded two grants from the federal government to support their efforts toward preventing the perpetration of violence. After an initial two-year funding cycle, the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women, awarded a continuation grant of $214,848 to provide support services to victims while engaging in a campus-wide strategies to dramatically reduce violence. Much of the grant funding will be put toward the hiring of a men?s programming coordinator, said Edwards, “a decision that highlights the necessity of men and women working together to create a safe campus, a safe community.?

The second grant awarded to the VIP Center is a $300,000 two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The grant was co-written by Dr. Rick Zimmerman, a communications professor, who will oversee the evaluation/research aspects. “The grant will allow us to expand the implementation of creative? research-driven strategies to effectively reduce the perpetration of violence,” said Edwards. “Constant evaluation through frequent surveys will enable us to quickly analyze a new program and make adjustments as necessary to create the most effective strategy possible. Our goal is to create a safer and more supportive environment for prevention and intervention by strengthening bystander involvement.

“There is substantial research indicating that one-time programming, awareness campaigns, and traditional peer education models are ineffective in reducing violence on college campuses. Consequently, the Violence Intervention and Prevention Center has been innovative in developing and/or borrowing new approaches to cultural change. Public health models call for a comprehensive approach, working at multiple levels of the socio-ecological model toward the ultimate goal of primary prevention. Social and behavioral change literature emphasizes persuasion principals within already-existing social and relational structures,” said Edwards.

“The heart of our approach to prevention is utilizing peer influence to motivate bystanders to intervene in high risk situations, to help them move from passive to active. In a campus community there is a social cost for standing up. For example, in a focus group of male students, we asked them what it would take for them to take action in a situation where someone’s safety is threatened, where a woman was being sexually assaulted. The number one response was ‘for someone else to do it first’. As students have begun to step up and lead the way, more have had the courage to follow.

“At their invitation, we have begun working closely with some of the fraternities. They said ‘we have to do something’ to stop this violence, ‘but what can we do?’ We are giving them the skill set they need to know how to take action. Little by little, one person at a time, we are getting them to understand that they can use their influence in their own small corner of the world to change everything,” said Edwards.

As a result of these approaches, during the past two years the Violence Intervention and Prevention Center has been extraordinarily successful in terms of getting students, faculty and staff involved in concrete and behavioral ways. Its peer education group, which involves multiple behavioral commitments over the course of the year, grew from 14 to 75, including 17 men. Its active student volunteer base has ballooned to over 200, with dozens of faculty, staff and administrators becoming actively involved as well.

“While it is too soon to see if these approaches will translate to a reduction in the perpetration of violence, we are committed to constant assessment and research-informed strategies to ensure that time and resources are not being wasted in the implementation of ineffective programming and approaches,” said Edwards.

In addition to the mandatory components of education, service coordination and training, the Department of Education grant proposes to target freshmen, men, direct service providers, and populations at increased risk of marginalization. In partnership with key allies on and off campus, the UK Violence Intervention and Prevention Center will:

? develop a comprehensive assessment strategy to measure overall progress toward reducing violence against women at UK and the effectiveness of specific programs, policies and interventions;

? work toward enhancement and improved coordination of the policies and protocols of direct service providers on and off campus;

? broaden and solidify the work of the Violence Against Women Intervention Review Board;

? develop and implement several long-term interventions to positively effect attitudes and behaviors regarding violence against women;

? increase gender-specific programming and involvement;

? engage individuals in personal responsibility for campus safety; and

? expand outreach efforts informing women of UK’s advocacy services through both passive and active programming.

“The grant is a win-win for us,” said Edwards. “If we find our program works, we can get more resources to expand it. If we find it doesn’t work, we’ll change strategies until we find one that does work.”

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