If your campus has not already had negative publicity from female students who have survived sexual assault— or protesters who have demanded action against perpetrators and by administrators who ignore them, or a federal investigation into Title IX and Clery Act violations—you’ve been very lucky so far.
With indications that one-third of female college students are sexually harassed or assaulted during their years on campus, it’s a wonder that survivors have taken so long to find a voice. Despite outreach campaigns like Take Back the Night, clothesline projects and Walk in Her Shoes events, campus sexual violence persists.
Grassroots organizers have come together to bring national attention to their complaints, while administrators defend their lack of adequate policies and procedures for handling them, and struggle to create new ones that work.
Having come out of the woodwork, survivors of sexual violence at each and every college and university in the United States have the potential to complain to the OCR about your school’s perceived inadequate attempts at prevention, handling and remedies.
They’re reminding you that Title IX demands that you take them seriously, using social media to organize and act.
Sexual assault on campus is not itself an epidemic. Rather, it’s the greatly increased rate of reporting it—and the students’ demand that their schools actually follow federal guidelines in handling the reports—that have made headlines across the country.
A national grassroots effort
Already the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has opened investigations at almost two dozen schools, including elite ones that should have known better such as Yale, Swarthmore, Occidental, UC-Berkeley, the University of Southern California and the University of North Carolina.
Students at these schools and others have filed complaints with the OCR, which have sent the media scurrying to report their stories of betrayal, first by the perpetrators and then by the “system” of perceived campus injustice.
They report their schools’ inept responses, such as:
• An administrator asking, “Are you sure it was rape?”
• Dismissal of rape charges against four Montana football players, two of whom are now facing trial
• Refusal to label a student a “stalker” because he had not yet threatened his victim
• Reducing the expulsion of a student found guilty of raping three women to only a suspension, without ever revealing his name
• A college president saying he was disinclined to believe sexual assault survivors
University of Southern California case
The University of Southern California is a prime example of the problem, according to senior Tucker Reed. After surviving a reported rape and learning that many other USC students routinely had their sexual assaults labeled as lesser crimes, she organized the OCR complaint against USC, aided by a professor there.
By discouraging students from reporting the assaults and mislabeling those reports that were made, she said USC was able to substantially reduce the number and severity of violations included in its annual Clery report log of sexual assaults on campus. She continued:
“Victims are told by campus security that turning in their assailant can ruin a perpetrator’s life and that the investigation will be rough on them and traumatizing. They want to make it seem less bad than it is, because they have to report them, Clery-wise, and it’s just sick.”
Reed’s report was labeled “sexual battery” rather than “sexual assault.” Even after she received a death threat by her accused attacker, she said it took USC a week to issue a “stay away” order for her protection.
Another USC student survivor is senior Ariella Mostov. She reported a sexual assault in March to the Los Angeles police department and the campus public safety department. Having received no response by May, she persisted. The campus records manager couldn’t find the report.
Finally they found it, listed as an “injury response” rather than a “sexual assault” or “rape.” Campus police later explained that by their definition it wasn’t rape because the assailant didn’t orgasm.
“I feel like I was denied justice,” Mostov said. “These people who are assigned to protect us and guarantee our safety, who are supposed to help us through these especially hard times, are people who are incredibly incompetent.”
In a larger sense, she continued, “We are trying to make USC a better place, so that future students don’t have to be in this situation.”
Back in the 1960s, when today’s baby boomers were in college, an in loco parentis policy meant that schools felt a moral responsibility to take care of their students.
At the University of Wisconsin, students in the allfemale residence halls had a 10:30 pm curfew on weeknights and 12:30 am on weekends. Those tardy in returning received “late minutes” and accumulating 15 of them meant a “campus,” staying in on a weekend night and reporting every hour, dressed in pajamas.
There were no such limits on males.
Despite the 1972 passage of Title IX, which became a way to open academic and then athletic opportunities to college women, only recently has the OCR extended its application to include protecting the quality of life for all women students on campus—by tying it to a woman’s right to a campus learning experience free of sexual violence.
In April 2011, the now-famous “Dear Colleague” letter clarifies how campuses are expected to respond to reports of sexual assault: Stop the violence, act to prevent future violence and provide remedies to the survivor. In addition, they were to designate at least one employee to assure compliance with Title IX.
Since then, enlightened campuses have sought to create new policies and procedures to protect their students. Others have ignored the issue.
In June 2012, Yale University CT reached an agreement with the U.S. Education Department to end its allegedly “sexually hostile atmosphere.” There was no announced retribution or fine for Yale failing to follow the law, either intentionally or unintentionally.
In the following months, students and alumna reported heart-breaking experiences of enduring sexual violence at Amherst College MA and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Apparently some administrators had continued to mishandle and misreport the complaints by women survivors.
In March 2013, President Obama signed legislation requiring schools to accurately report instances of domestic and dating violence, and stalking, and to train students and employees to prevent it.
In April 2013, the Education Department warned colleges and universities of penalties for retaliating against those students who file complaints against them with the OCR.
In May 2013, the Education Department worked with the Justice Department to announce a “blueprint” for other colleges to follow in creating policies to handle sexual violence. It was based on their investigation of a series of outrageous violations at the University of Montana, by both campus leaders and local Missoula police officials.
In July 2013, activists and survivors met with leaders at the White House and the Education Department, where they presented a petition with more than 112,000 signatures of those who demand that colleges present a more positive and accurate response to thousands of reports of sexual violence on their campuses.
Even some state and national lawmakers, not previously known for their speed or sensitivity in righting wrongs against women, are getting into the act.
New web site aids reports
Last month a new grassroots campaign called Know Your IX made its debut on a web site of the same name, http://knowyourix.org
Its goal is to educate and empower all college students in the United States about their legal rights under Title IX, which includes the right to a campus free of sexual violence.
From there, sexual violence survivors can learn how to advocate for themselves through their colleges’ complaint proceedings. If necessary, they can file a complaint against their schools with the OCR, which could trigger a full investigation on their campuses.
Its home page offers viewers four immediate choices: Report violence or harassment, Change my school, Support a survivor or Spread the word. The first choice starts with the statement: “If you’re here because you’re looking to report violence and harassment, we’re so sorry to hear that you’re facing this inexcusable abuse.”
The new site is a game-changer for campuses. What has been a trickle of complaints of sexual assault and improper handling at a handful of schools is about to become a flood, as more women are empowered to fight a powerful system of ignoring or downplaying their legitimate grievances.
Creators of the site are collectively known as the IX Network, which now includes about 700 members from 50 or more colleges. It began with survivors and activists at the University of North Carolina and Yale University getting together to swap stories, exchange best practices and create templates for filing official complaints.
Andrea Pino, a student at UNC at Chapel Hill whose January complaint led to the investigation there, said the network offers support, solidarity and a platform for outreach. “It really gives us energy to continue forward and to continue demanding action,” she said.
The site is easy to use and follow, including how-to advice and step-by-step procedures. It warns that they are not lawyers and urges consultation with an “actual, real, trained lawyer before taking legal action.”
It contains personal advice in the initial “Dealing with…” section, hotlines for emergency care, resources such as the National Women’s Law Center, details about Title IX and the Clery Act and encouragement to contact them.
Managing the Know Your IX campaign are “two fulltime students with jobs,” which might seem to be hardly a match for a university’s staff of full-time legal experts. But passion and solidarity can go a long way toward success.
What activists want
• Administrators and police taking survivors’ claims seriously, including sensitive handling and accurate recording of sexual violence complaints
• Violators of the Clery Act being held accountable for their actions or failure to act by the U.S. Education Department, which could fine a school up to $35,000 per violation
• A cultural change on all campuses, respecting the rights of all students including the majority, who are women
Until now, schools have been disinclined to support rape survivors for many reasons:
• Negative publicity on campus sexual violence could deter potential students from enrolling there.
• Accused rapists could sue the school for defamation.
• Alumna could withhold donations.
• Increased paperwork and investigations could contribute to employees’ workloads.
• Accused athletes could be ruled ineligible to play.
• A pervasive belief that if administrators ignore the problem long enough, it will go away.
But they were wrong. In the words of Tucker Reed, who filed the Clery complaint against USC: “They must have thought that because rape victims are so ashamed of themselves, none of us would talk to each other and compare notes about how we were treated, and would never go public.”
In the future, expect an exponential increase in reports and investigations and retributions for schools, because it’s the right thing to do—and women students deserve better.
Thanks to knowyourix.org and The Huffington Post and The Chronicle of Higher Education on August 12, 2013.
Wenniger, M.D. (2013, September). Rape Survivors Pressure Colleges for Protection. Women in Higher Education, 22(9), 1-3.