By Marie Frankson
According to the Department of Justice, one in five women will be sexually assaulted during their time at college. Over the summer, numerous schools were under investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases under Title IX of the United States Education Amendment of 1972. Sexual assault is a growing epidemic on college campuses around the country, and no campus is safer than another. In a 2000 National Institute of Justice survey, in 80 to 90% of rape cases the victims and assailants know each other; and in a 2008 National Crime Victimization survey more than 75% of women who reported a rape were under the age of 25 at the time of their assaults. Under Title IX, women (everyone, really) have the right to feel safe in their schools, and with these statistics and the fact that nearly 60 colleges are under investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases, it doesn’t seem like college-age women are very safe.
“Sexual violence is one of the most underreported crimes, more so on college campuses,” said Joe Farrell, the Director of Training for the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Violence. In a 2012 interview with WBNG channel 12 Action News, Farrell stated that “every two minutes a woman is raped.” That is incredibly disturbing, and what is also disturbing is the fact that fewer than 5% of rapes and attempted rapes of college women are reported, according to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual assault organization.
Title IX requires that colleges have a procedure for handling sexual harassment and sexual violence/assault complaints and to take immediate action to ensure that victims can continue their education without fear of further harassment or retaliation, but this is rarely the case as often the harasser or assailant gets off without even a warning while the victim is forced to either see their assailant every day or leave the campus. The attitude towards women who had been sexually assaulted in college show a culture of indifference or denial or even victim blaming. Unless the colleges do not accept federal funding, they have to comply with the regulations of Title IX; however, if the students feel as though their campus hadn’t properly handed their sexual assault complaints, they can file a federal law suit against their college.
Many colleges are in denial about the scope of sexual assault. Often, colleges underreport the numbers of sexual assaults because victims who do report their assaults do not always report to the college, and the college does not always cross-check with police departments and counseling centers. Because of this, colleges do not know when they have serial attacks and cannot track the predators.
What can colleges do to protect their student body? One important thing colleges can do is create a haven for students to go to and tell someone if they choose to; students need to feel safe to open up about their assaults without feeling blamed, shamed, and judged for what happened to them. A second important thing colleges can do is address the behaviors within campus culture of binge drinking and substance abuse; between 2012 and 2013 more than 97,000 college students reported binge drinking related unwanted sexual acts and assaults, according to a May 2014 Huffington Post article by A. Thomas McLellan, titled “What the White House Task Force on College Sexual Assault Doesn’t Say.” When colleges accept binge drinking without punishment, they are also accepting the effects, which can have devastating consequences for everyone involved. A third important thing colleges can do is to improve their safety measures that are in place and to implement new ones when needed — such as text alerts, mass emails, blue light systems, on-campus transportation, and security escorts, and most importantly to make these safety measures known to all students. A fourth important thing colleges can do is to teach all incoming freshmen and transfers about what sexual assault is as well as what they can do if they are ever in that situation; knowledge is power, and giving the students the knowledge about what to do will give them the strength they need to do what they need to do, whether that be telling someone they trust or going directly to the police or whatever. A fifth and extremely important thing colleges can do is educate its students on enthusiastic consent. Silence or a lack of resistance does not constitute as consent, and a person cannot give consent if they are drunk, drugged, unconscious, or asleep. However, consent can be nonverbal, such as a person nodding their head or moving closer to the other person when asked if they want to participate in a sexual activity. It’s also important to teach college students that consent can be ongoing or it can change at any time; what may have been a yes five minutes ago turned into a no, and the other partner has to respect that decision.
Thankfully, colleges aren’t the only ones trying to make things safer for their students, government legislators are also working towards making colleges safer for their students, and towards making colleges accountable for their actions in regards to sexual assaults on their campuses.
On June 30th of this year, a bill proposed by eight bipartisan legislators, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) called the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, would impose significant penalties to colleges who failed to release data on sexual assaults. The bill itself establishes a provision that calls for a public database of sexual assaults on college campuses; the information would be provided by students, not through the campuses’ administrations, by way of surveys. Through the surveys, the colleges who refuse, or fail, to properly report the cases of sexual assaults on their campuses will be shamed into doing better to keep their students safe.
In California, Democrats Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Susan Davis proposed new legislation to deal with sexual assault on college campuses, called the Survivor Outreach and Support Campus Act (or SOS Campus Act), in July of this year. The bill would require the designation of a survivor advocate who would act independently from the college and must report to someone who was not a part of the college’s sexual assault adjudication chain. This would ensure that the victim gets the help they need through reporting their assault, counseling, administrative procedures, medical and academic accommodations, and the legal process of the college or local law enforcement. Rep. Susan Davis was quoted as saying, “Victims of a sexual assault need to know someone is there for them, especially the learning institute they have entrusted their future to.” According to the Huffington Post, the bill carried endorsements from several agencies, including “the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, the National Women’s Law Center, Jewish Women International, the American Association of University Women and Legal Momentum, a nonprofit organization that has helped students file Title IX complaints against colleges.”
With colleges and legislators working to make campuses safer, students who have been sexually assaulted need to know that they are not alone and that they can speak out about what happened to them. A website called www.notalone.gov has resources for students and schools alike about sexual assault — from phone numbers to national hotlines to ways to file a complaint about how a school handles (or doesn’t handle) sexual harassment and assault cases to a map that can show you where the nearest crime victim and sexual violence centers are to you by typing in your zip code.
There are a variety of ways colleges and legislatures can work to lower the rate of sexual assaults on campuses. This article only describes a few of those ways, but everyone, colleges and students alike, can work together to help alleviate this problem.