University News

William Paterson University Professor Awarded Two Federal Grants for Research Projects on Relationship Violence and Sexual Assault

Michele Cascardi

Michele Cascardi, PhD, William Paterson University associate professor of psychology, has been awarded two grants for research projects centered on relationship violence and sexual assault. She received $285,000 from the National Institute of Justice (award no. 2016-MU-CX-007) to improve how researchers and practitioners measure teen dating violence, and $44,000 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (award no. 1R21HD085063-01A1) to study the role of bystanders in preventing sexual assault and relationship violence on college campuses. 

Measuring teen dating violence

Current surveys that measure whether a young person has experienced relationship violence lack context, Cascardi explains. As a result, she says, researchers and practitioners cannot easily differentiate typical, but inappropriate, adolescent behaviors from those which may be harmful.

Cascardi emphasizes that teen behaviors must be studied in light of their context. For example, some behaviors, like pushing and grabbing, may be classified as playful roughhousing in some situations but fear provoking and abusive in others. The stage of relationship may also affect how dating behavior is interpreted. Cascardi notes that receiving continual text messages monitoring one’s whereabouts may be perceived as romantic interest early in relationship. Over time, however, these same actions may change from something desired to something unwelcome or abusive.

With research funding from the National Institute of Justice, Cascardi aims to improve the precision of relationship violence measurement. Doing so will allow experts to better evaluate both the intent and impact of a teen’s actions in a dating relationship, and therefore, whether those actions constitute dating abuse.

Developing a more precise way of judging what’s happening is important, Cascardi says, because the information can help experts identify young people that may need assistance and also assess programs aimed at deterring dating violence. 


Bystander behavior on campus

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development-funded project is a multi-institution collaboration headed by Southern Methodist University in Texas and joined by William Paterson, Stony Brook and Marquette universities. Their cross-campus efforts aim to teach first-year freshmen how to recognize someone’s risk to be victimized, what to do when that risk exists, and evaluate how the experimental intervention affects their behavior.

At least one of the participating universities will use virtual reality testing, whereby research subjects wear a headset that simulates an environment where a “friend” engages in talk of risky behavior. “The way the student reacts in such an environment tells us more about how they may act in real life, versus surveys alone,” Cascardi says.

In September, each institution began studying more than 200 of its first-year freshmen as part of this project. First-time freshmen were selected as previous studies have shown they are at highest risk for sexual assault, especially in their first few weeks on campus.

Cascardi hopes that the work of both grant-funded projects will reduce dating violence and lead to more people having healthy romantic relationships. “Many young people have trouble avoiding relationship harm,” Cascardi says. “Our romantic relationships set the stage for how marital and parent-child conflicts get settled, so by improving romantic relationship quality, we also hope to improve the quality of future family relationships as well.”