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Monday, March 17, 2014

Dear Vice President Biden


IMPACT Chicago instructors—Ben, Bruce, Katie, Margaret, Mark, Martha, Molly, Nat, and Rob—joined over 90 other violence prevention and self-defense educators in writing a letter to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The letter appears below.


Dear Vice President Biden, Ms. Jarrett, and members of the Task Force:

We write to you as prevention educators in the field of sexual assault reduction. We are encouraged and heartened by President Obama's recent decision to accelerate efforts to reduce sexual assault on our nations' campuses, and we have great hopes that your Task Force will make a real difference in our ongoing efforts to prevent sexual violence.

In light of the Task Force's mission to recommend "evidence-based best and promising practices for preventing and responding to rape and sexual assault," we wish to bring to your attention the prevention methods we teach—specifically, education and awareness about consent, boundary-setting, and self-defending. These methods, variously known as Personal Safety Education, Empowerment Self Defense, and Bystander Intervention Education, have a long history of success; they have been painstakingly developed over many years and rest on a solid evidentiary base. They teach the social, verbal, and physical skills necessary to reduce the risk of violence. When employed in a community as part of a spectrum of interventions, the methods we teach can effectively prevent violence before it occurs, give at-risk populations tools for immediate response, and help targeted populations prevent recurrence. We urge the committee to foreground these kinds of programs in its recommendations to the President.

As you no doubt know, there are now very clear directives for campuses to prevent and respond to sexual assault, thanks to the passage of the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act last year as part of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization. One new element is a mandate to provide comprehensive prevention education to all incoming students. This policy shift, recognizing the value of concrete, effective violence prevention skills, is long overdue—in fact for many years, educating students about self-protection methods was explicitly forbidden under the Department of Justice's Campus Grant program. We believe young people deserve skills they can use in their communities to effectively identify, prevent, respond to, and heal from violence; an emphasis on such skills-based education by the Task Force would do much to make up for lost time in prevention efforts on campuses nationwide.

Fortunately, the methods we advocate are already proven to work. Various federal U.S. institutes, grant-makers and departments recommend that people at high risk for violence practice them. A 2005 report commissioned by the National Institute of Justice, The Impact of Victim Self-Protections on Rape, found that skills taught and practiced in Personal Safety Education reduce the risk of rape more than 80 percent compared with nonresistance and did not significantly increase the risk of serious injury to the defender.

Personal Safety Education is also a key recommendation of numerous national experts in violence prevention, public health, sexual violence, criminology, and trauma studies. Prevention experts like Alan Berkowitz, Judith Herman, and Gavin De Becker have all recommended such training.

In accordance with the Task Force's directive to measure the success of prevention and response programs, we further note that Personal Safety Education has a demonstrated track record of quantifiable assessment. Its impact can be, and has been, measured. It provides good accountability along with its other good results. We have appended a bibliography that summarizes some of the many studies showing its benefits.

Furthermore, Personal Safety Education not only teaches effective skills to immediately prevent, disrupt, or reduce the harm from assault; it also contributes to broader cultural change. According to University of Illinois criminologist Paul Schewe, Personal Safety Education skills are supported by a preponderance of the evidence "for changing knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, or behavioral intentions and for reducing . . . victimization.” The more young people we equip with these skills, the closer we are to achieving a society that no longer normalizes or tolerates sexual violence, that speaks up to prevent or report it, and that supports victims and potential victims rather than blaming them. Thus Personal Safety Education should also be considered in light of the Task Force's mandate to "maximiz[e] the Federal Government's effectiveness in combating campus rape and sexual assault."

We deeply appreciate all your efforts to reduce sexual violence on our nation's campuses, and we hope you will consider us a resource as you continue to build effective policies on that front. Please know that we are working alongside you every day, teaching young people, supporting them, and assessing the effectiveness of our work. We are grateful to feel that the White House is our partner in this vital endeavor.

Thanks to Susan Schorn, self-defense instructor and author of Smile at Strangers for preparing the letter.

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