SCOPE Thought Piece, Question #2: What have we learned to date in our prevention efforts that practitioners should know about?

Linda Langford, Sc.D.

Given that I work for two national training and technical assistance centers that aim to answer this question comprehensively, I’ll be as succinct as I can!

We’ve learned a tremendous amount about effective campus prevention in the past 15 years, and decades of community prevention research has a lot to teach as well. While the science base is greater for some problem areas than others, the promise of an organization like SCOPE is to achieve greater cross-fertilization of prevention knowledge across topics. For example, reviews of the alcohol and drug (AOD) prevention literature find that providing general information and educating about AOD-related harms are ineffective when used alone, and more effective approaches include efforts to change the environment as well as individuals.

Reviews of campus sexual violence prevention programs conclude that one-time or fragmented programs are ineffective in creating sustained change. Taken together, these findings suggest that more effective prevention programs addressing any problem area will require multiple, coordinated efforts that address the environment in addition to individuals. In addition, it is clear that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all program that will work on every campus; the literature instead suggests the need to assess local problems and assets and create a set of prevention efforts that match the local problems and context. To achieve this goal, the literature suggests the need for a systematic, collaborative planning process by a multi-stakeholder group such as a campus task force or campus and community coalition.

In some ways, this approach is a paradigm shift for campus prevention. One of my favorite phrases is “Prevention is a process, not a program.” Rather than starting with activities (“which program should we do?”), we start with the question, “Why is this problem happening in the first place?” in order to identify and change the underlying conditions that cause or contribute to the problem. Research shows that multiple factors contribute to or protect against any complex behavior, and these risk and protective factors exist at the individual, peer/group, institutional, community and policy levels. Once identified, these factors can then be addressed with simultaneous or sequential interventions across these levels. Again, there is often some local variation in contributing factors, which is why we recommend a local assessment.

To distill key lessons of effective prevention, the Higher Ed Center created a set of principles and a process in consultation with the field that can guide development or improvement of local prevention efforts. While initially created to fight campus violence, the ideas are equally applicable to other health and safety problems. The principles and process are summarized in our violence prevention “framework” document entitled Preventing Violence and Promoting Safety in Higher Education Settings: Overview of a Comprehensive Approach. The principles state that more effective interventions are: (1) prevention-focused in addition to response-focused; (2) comprehensive, addressing all aspects of the problem; (3) planned and evaluated, using a systematic process to design, implement and evaluate the initiative; (4)  strategic and targeted, addressing priority problems (and their risk and protective factors) identified through an assessment of local problems and assets; (5) research-based, informed by current research literature and theory; (6) multicomponent, using multiple strategies; (7) coordinated and synergistic, ensuring that efforts complement and reinforce each other; (8) multisectoral and collaborative, involving key campus stakeholders and disciplines; and (9) supported by infrastructure, institutional commitment and systems. Other organizations and individuals have created their own lists of best practices that convey similar key lessons.

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One Response to SCOPE Thought Piece, Question #2: What have we learned to date in our prevention efforts that practitioners should know about?

  1. Susan Marine says:

    These are great guideposts for creating a comprehensive plan, Linda. I think sometimes the thing that holds campuses back– especially those with fewer resources — is the development of a meaningful and rigorous assessment tool for their population. Are these kinds of tools more available than we know, and is it possible for a relative lay person– a student affairs practitioner, without particular expertise in the prevention field — to use them? perhaps making such tools, and training in how to apply them, more accessible is the next step we can take as we strive to support institutions in making meaningful change.

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