National group criticizes UM sex assault prevention program

Sept 19,2012

A national group has taken issue with the University of Montana’s sexual assault prevention program and is asking the school to discontinue its video series until it can be peer reviewed by independent researchers and scoured for factual accuracy.

Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, based in Maryland, issued a letter last week to UM President Royce Engstrom, asking him to discontinue the university’s sexual assault prevention program, known as Personal Empowerment Through Self Awareness.

“The University of Montana should immediately remove the PETSA videos from its website,” the group stated in its letter to the school. “The videos need to be reviewed by a group of independent researchers and law enforcement experts. Factual flaws need to be corrected and inflammatory claims removed.”

SAVE, which describes itself as a victim-advocacy organization working for evidence-based solutions to domestic and sexual violence, suggests that the PETSA program relies on unproven figures, undermines the presumption of innocence of the accused and confuses “complainant” with “victim.”

Everett Bartlett, president of SAVE, said the group also takes issue with PETSA’s warning of a “rape-prone culture,” where sexual violence is encouraged through societal norms and behaviors.

Bartlett called the term inflammatory and vague. He said it has no standing in a university setting.

“We don’t believe that there’s any basis for stating it’s a rape-prone culture,” Bartlett said Tuesday. “It’s an inflammatory claim that suggests our culture condones rape, and that’s not true. We’re asking that the information presented be accurate and truthful, and not inflammatory.”

UM launched the PETSA program this summer and all students are required to view the series of videos and pass a short quiz. Roughly 7,800 students have completed the training to date, about half of the student body, according to the school.


Created by associate professor Danielle Wozniak and other UM faculty members after months of collaboration, the program has generated national discussion, including recent coverage the Inside Higher Ed website.

Wozniak said the team that developed the program relied on the best data available when shaping the tutorial. She said the university welcomes all feedback, and, so far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The information in PETSA is based on national sources from researchers in the field of rape prevention and reduction,” Wozniak said. “They are standard and accepted.”

Martin Schwartz, a sociologist who worked at Ohio University and is now a visiting scholar at George Washington University, has conducted sexual assault prevention and reduction research for more than two decades.

He called the PETSA program at UM both imaginative and unique, and said the self-administered tutorial successfully deals with real-life circumstances while offering solutions to students who find themselves in difficult situations.

“This unique program allows students to view short-burst lessons as often as they need,” Schwartz said. “This quiet time may be useful for a program that directly speaks to the need to change the culture on many campuses that allows and excuses violence against women.”

Anthropologist W. Penn Handwerker also reviewed the PETSA program. Handwerker, who has conducted violence reduction research on a cross-cultural basis, believes UM’s program is both effective and fair.

“The tutorial effectively and fairly links rape – and, implicitly, other forms of on-campus violent behavior – with the absence of consequences,” Handwerker said. “It offers a thorough, nuanced and focused model that may prove useful far beyond college campuses.”


Bartlett said his organization learned of recent allegations of sexual assault at UM and the ensuing PETSA program after the federal Department of Justice and the Department of Education launched investigations into how the school handled the allegations.

He said the Community of the Falsely Accused website also brought SAVE’s attention to the UM program. He said SAVE has no relationship with the web group, only that the group has made several postings regarding the UM tutorial, of which he recently became aware.

Bartlett said he believes the UM program succeeds on several levels and is a good first step in addressing the issue. He also said victims of sexual assault deserve support.

But Bartlett also noted that false rape cases have been reported at a growing number of universities, including Yale, Xavier and Connecticut, and that false claims often divert services, protection and credibility from true victims.

“Any person who claims to be a victim of sexual assault certainly should be respected and supported,” he said. “But given the reality of false allegations, it is inappropriate to insist that the complainant be believed until after the case has been fully adjudicated in a court of law.”

He also said SAVE disagrees with PETSA’s message that “coercion – pressuring, guilt-tripping, intimidating – can be just as forceful and physically disempowering as physical violence.”

“We are disappointed and dismayed to see ‘guilt-tripping’ – however the term may be defined – included as a form of coercion,” Bartlett said. “If we invite every person who has experienced ‘guilt-tripping’ and then has sexual relations to file a claim of sexual assault, what will happen to the credibility of the real victims?”