SCOPE Thought Piece, Question #1: What are the critical challenges facing the prevention field?

Brett A. Sokolow, Esq.

Many campuses use effective prevention practices, based on researched models, strong data and proven methodologies.  Some campuses have originated models that have achieved admirable outcomes, such as Bringing in the Bystander™ at the University of New Hampshire or the social norming efforts around alcohol at Washington State University.  These notable efforts are all too often applied piecemeal to addressing aspects of problem drinking, sexual violence and other health and safety challenges.  While we can cite pockets of effectiveness, most campuses have yet to embrace integrated or holistic prevention strategies that manifest what I call the seven C’s of effective strategic initiatives — cogent, community-wide, collaborative, concerted, consistent, comprehensive and centrally-planned — across all health and violence risk issues for students, faculty and staff.  I believe the future of prevention lies, in part, in that embrace.  Can we use the seven C’s to create a campus prevention framework today for what our students will learn, teach and model about prevention for the next 4+ years of their stakeholding in our campus community?  Can we ensure our employees receive parallel messages?  Education is what we do best. What we face is the challenge of educating our communities on high-risk health and safety issues and using that education to foster primary prevention.  We need to meet big risks with big ideas.

A thought-piece such as this should provoke deep questions about what successful strategic initiatives look like.  I’d like to offer a few.  First, how can cross-pollination of successful models can apply those frameworks across the broader health and safety spectrum?  What do I mean by that?  Here is an example.  Social norming efforts on campuses are still applied mostly to problem drinking issues.  Can we see them more broadly applied by more campuses to address other drugs, hazing, sexual violence, tobacco, etc.?  Bystander intervention efforts are applied mostly to sexual violence prevention, but have application to all health and safety issues, including targeted violence, eating disorders, hazing, mental health, bullying, etc.

Second, how can we bestow prevention practitioners with sufficient power to catalyze broad institutional change?  Those who have that power aren’t as focused on prevention as we need them to be, but they are focused on risk management.  Thus, I encourage us to considering framing the challenge of meeting big risks from a risk management perspective, helping campus leaders to see that meaningful, primary prevention is a powerful and effective tool of proactive risk management. Doing so may help us to capture the attention of those who hold the power, the purse strings and the say so, because they value risk management and have embraced it broadly.  Sometimes the obvious is worth stating.  Risk management is preventing (or mitigating) risks to avoid casualty losses for the institution.  If we can prevent the behavior that leads to an injury or harm, we can prevent the claim.  If we can prevent the claim, we can prevent the liability or resultant loss.  And, perhaps we can also enhance the retention, persistence and success of the individual or group for whom injury or harm was avoided, which also enhances the institutional bottom line in ways that are more than pecuniary.  Making the case for prevention in this way will give us leverage to inspire campus leaders to give us the resources we need to truly fund, support and realize our prevention initiatives at the level it will take to ensure their success.

Third, should we market prevention up to campus leaders as a way to reduce liability?  That shouldn’t be why campus leaders invest in prevention, but it will get their attention.  Programming on campuses is often organized by student activities, the lectures committee, athletics, the women’s center, the wellness center, health educators, peer educators, faculty initiatives, etc. Do these groups and departments know their programming efforts can help campuses to meet a legal duty imposed on all campuses to ensure reasonably safe environments?  Do campus leaders know that those who do prevention work are partners in understanding that the legal duty of care is really a duty to care?  Selling that idea to presidents, provosts, trustees, parents, students and other critical campus constituencies can be a very powerful notion.

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