Using data to prevent gender-based violence

Lisa Brooks-Lewis lays out the various data sources that institutions can draw upon to inform their approach to preventing gender-based violence.

Lisa Brooks-Lewis is Social Impact and Inclusivity Manager at Loughborough University.

Data on gender-based violence on campus can come from many sources.

These include informal or formal reporting routes, including anonymous reports, from research carried out on campus or externally, and external sources of third-party data from partner organisations.

At Loughborough University, the Sexual Violence Working Group, which I co-chair, has drawn on data from university and external sources to inform several interventions and activities over the last three academic years.

Internal data systems

Initially, the university collated data on sexual violence through our case management systems. This was developed into an internal reporting system that included a range of experiences that students and staff could report, including sexual violence, stalking, hate crime, and domestic abuse.

The reporting party could upload evidence, location, their details, and additional narrative information (in their own words), with the option to remain anonymous. They could tick options available, such as needing support, wanting to report formally or informally, or just wanting the university to be aware. Upon reporting, the reporting party received an email notification signposting to additional support information and relevant third-party organisations.

However, after three years of data, student and staff feedback was sought, and an improved system was launched in February 2023 linked to Student Services case management. This new system allows the reporting party to write a narrative with a “what”, “where”, and “who” box, also allowing the reporting party to upload any evidence. The reporting party can opt-in to remain anonymous and then suggest “how” student services can support them. Our approach to information-sharing balances legal obligations under health and safety, contract law, and safeguarding duties with the General Data Protection Regulation category of “legitimate interest” to process this data.

Outside the online reporting tool, informal reports made to student services staff are also labelled within the case management system and managed through the pathway, following the sexual violence policy. Referrals made via phone, email, or from academic colleagues are handled in the same way, allowing a central point for collating the information.

And a system has also been developed that will launch in the 2023/24 academic year for community members to report via text, as students and staff tell us they want as many different reporting options as possible.

Bespoke prevention work

After two academic years of collating data, it was clear that this could be used to inform university policy – for example, when a complainant is named in separate cases from named or anonymous reporting parties. And the university has now used this data from student cases to inform our practice and formulate an exclusion policy with an embedded risk assessment to safeguard the university community.

Loughborough has also looked thematically at reporting data from initial online reports, case management data, and investigation materials. Drawing on my specialist knowledge – having worked on sexual violence for over 20 years – alongside the university’s Head of Security, who brings knowledge from a background in policing, we manually identified themes in this data.

Our analysis revealed issues with persistence/repeated behaviours of complainants, coercion, and alcohol misuse. It has also helped us identify prevention opportunities, i.e., bystander and awareness building. The data has been used to create bespoke preventative welcome messaging for our community at welcome talks within halls of residence. These sessions have enabled students to reflect and recognise harmful behaviour and provide knowledge of where to seek help and report.

In gathering feedback from the sessions, I have used digital methods such (Poll Everywhere) and manual methods (post-it notes). These sessions were mainly received positively. However, there were some comments about freedom of speech and “morality policing.”

Public and research data

External research evidence was also crucial. For example, we used data on non-fatal strangulation taken from the written evidence provided for the Domestic Abuse bill in 2020, including a 2021 study from Saint Mary’s Sexual Abuse Referral Centre in Manchester showed that one in five adults presenting for a forensic medical examination following a report of rape by a partner or ex-partner gave a history of strangulation as part of that assault. We designed the intervention ‘Porn: it’s not sex education’, piloted in November 2022. The course feedback was mostly positive, and we are now looking at ways to embed the content into the curriculum and freshers’ events.

The university has also worked alongside third parties such as the police and third-sector organisation Victim First. As part of our ongoing partnership work in harm reduction, they have shared non-public local data with us. These links mean that we can collaborate on messaging within our local community in a timely way relating to issues such as sextortion and romance fraud in the student community and safety messaging when meeting people online.

We used this data to support the creation of communications with the Loughborough Students’ Union to raise awareness through campaigns. For example, our campaign #KnowViolence highlights what constitutes domestic and sexual violence. As part of this, we have designed training packages for students to encourage healthy intimate relationships.

Next steps

Often, the work in responding to and seeking to prevent the harm of sexual violence is reactive. But prevention work is imperative, and how we at Loughborough use data aims to inform such effective prevention work. Moving forward, the working group seeks to look at the impact of our work, away from focusing on the number of reports received, towards identifying evaluation approaches to better assess our interventions.

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