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10/5/11 - Verizon Foundation aids research on violence against women

With a fellowship from the Verizon Foundation, Mississippi State doctoral student Lauren Vasquez is making a yearlong study of violence against women among college students.

The San Antonio, Texas, native is a sociology major focusing on the areas of criminology and gender. She said researchers who study these areas often investigate violence against women, including intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Earlier this year, the foundation provided funding through the university's Office of the Graduate School for her to research intimate partner violence and healthy relationships in university settings.

"Intimate partner violence is something you talk about inherently with gender and crime," Vasquez said. "It's a major issue in our society, and the highest levels of violence are always found in men and women who are within the college-age demographic."

When completed, her findings will offer recommendations that may be used by university administrators to expand and enhance current programs designed to help reduce instances of sexual assault and intimate partner violence.

Vasquez said she also plans to share the information with other universities in the Southeastern Conference.

"I chose to conduct a needs-based assessment on the viability of university services and educational programs concerning healthy personal relationships, handling domestic violence, and informing students of preventative measures," she said.

As the study of the issues at MSU got under way, Vasquez said she decided to expand the investigation to various approaches used at the other conference schools. Specifically, she examined policies and compared various approaches to victims' services. She also looked at reported rates of crimes and how those rates compared to such factors as where the victims' services units are housed on the campuses.

"This one factor seems to have some effect on how likely victims are to even report that a crime has occurred," Vasquez observed.

While some universities--including MSU--house victims' services in the student health center, others are located in a counseling center or university police station. Still others may be found in a stand-alone facility.

Vasquez said universities must self-examine the visibility of their campus victims' services. "Victims can't report or get resources if they don't even know where they are," she emphasized.

In undertaking her study, Vasquez said she formed a close professional relationship with Beatrice Tatem, MSU's director of Outreach and Sexual Assault Services. "I wanted to make sure we could help the services we already have in place here at MSU," Vasquez said of her interaction with Tatem.

Associate professor of sociology Nicole Rader is Vasquez's major professor in the sociology doctoral program. She also heads MSU's gender studies and criminology programs.

She praised Vasquez's research, saying it supports a critical need to promote domestic violence awareness as "an everyone issue, not just a women's issue."

Vasquez said she is grateful for the research opportunity offered by the philanthropic arm of Verizon Communications Inc., which fosters awareness and prevention of domestic violence as one of its key messages. With her focus on criminology, she said her graduate classes and prior research prepared her well to take on a research project that effectively addressed the Verizon Foundation's objectives of supporting research on this topic.

"Our goal is to invest in results and fuel positive social change in issues that impact our employees, customers and communities," the foundation website explains. In 2009, the organization contributed nearly $5 million to assist in domestic violence prevention. (For more, visit www.verizonfoundation.org.)

"I would say definitely that the best way for universities to tackle violence against women is for multiple groups on campus and within the community to work together toward intimate partner violence awareness and prevention," Vasquez said.

She said her preliminary findings indicate several factors, including the physical location of victims' services, seem to impact how likely some victims are to report domestic violence crimes.

Vasquez, who would like to work for a policy-making body after finishing her doctoral program, said she looks forward to continuing research in efforts to evaluate policy effectiveness.

"If a policy is in place to deter crime, I'm interested in determining if it is actually doing what it is supposed to do," Vasquez said.

In addition to looking at current policies on the college campus related to sexual assault, Vasquez also examined deeper causes of sexual assault. She partnered with local women's shelters to gain an understanding of the depth of need in response to domestic violence.

Among her research conclusions, Vasquez indicates a need for increased educational programming that targets men with the objective of preventing sexual assault and intimate partner violence.

Rader said giving basic education to men about sexual assault is a huge step forward.

"A lot of times men think sexual assault is an issue about sex, but we need to explain that it's about power--not sex," Rader said. "We think awareness and education are really the keys to the prevention of violence against women," she added, explaining that more education targeting men could cultivate a climate of men being responsible for other men.

"We want men to hold other men accountable. If men see a peer being too aggressive, they may have an opportunity to influence that person and discourage that type of behavior. Men can make a difference by being more aware," Rader said.

Vasquez said she plans to offer programming targeting men this semester based on the needs she identified through her research.

Allison Matthews | University Relations

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