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Hollywood, Higher Ed and Sexual Assault

This week, the movie industry is focused on the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The festival is a program of the Sundance Institute, founded by Robert Redford with the goal of supporting and celebrating independent filmmaking.
Much of the buzz in Park City this week has focused on an upcoming film, “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about campus sexual assault. By all accounts, including this New York Times piece, the film is powerful and will fuel further conversations about how our institutions are responding to this important issue. “The Hunting Ground” will be in theaters in late March and will air on CNN later this year.
A second film about sexual assault, “It Happened Here,” will be screened on campuses around in the country next month in conjunction with the White House’s “It’s on Us” campaign.
This isn’t the first time higher education has been the focus of documentary filmmakers, as last year’s Sundance Film Festival brought us “Ivory Tower,” an examination of concerns about value and cost. And the issue of sexual assault is being covered regularly and compellingly by media of all kinds—see last week’s “CBS Sunday Morning” piece here.
As this important national conversation about sexual assault and student safety continues, it’s a good time for communicators to be sure that their leadership teams are prepared to engage meaningfully. Now is the time to be in regular touch with student affairs, campus safety and legal colleagues to ensure that the lines of communication are open. Some topics to discuss include the current status of policies and procedures, plans for ongoing training of faculty and staff, and efforts to educate students.
Also take the time to draft talking points and fact sheets for the president, senior leadership team, and board chair (if appropriate). The conversation about sexual assault on campus is truly a national one, and as such will likely come up during interactions with alumni, donors, policymakers, and prospective students and parents. Equipping leadership with talking points about the institution’s efforts to create a safe and respectful learning environment will prove useful in grounding these interactions in fact.
Lastly, anticipate how the outlets and reporters that cover your institution might want to localize this national story and how you can help them tell it in a way that is accurate and in context. Consider creating resources that help explain what FERPA and Title IX require and how those laws and regulations inform and guide the policies and procedures on your campus. Be sure that policies, procedures and resources for survivors of sexual assault are posted to your website, up to date, and easy to find.
The national conversation about sexual assault is an important one, and all indications are that it will continue, so time spent on preparing to engage in a constructive way will be time well spent.