Colleges Are Reminded of Federal Eye on Handling of Sexual-Assault Cases

February 11, 2014

The U.S. Education Department's chief enforcer of civil-rights laws said on Monday that her office would be working “faster and better” to make sure colleges abide by federal law in their handling of campus sexual assaults.

Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant secretary of education who heads the department's Office for Civil Rights, delivered that message to college officials attending a conference here at the University of Virginia called “Dialogue at UVa: Sexual Misconduct Among College Students.” Her statement came just weeks after President Obama promised governmentwide scrutiny of campus sexual assault and singled out college presidents, in particular, for their obligation to do more to keep students safe.

Campus sexual assault is a “huge priority” at the department, Ms. Lhamon told the audience of 250 or so who had gathered for her lunchtime speech.

Complaints of sexual assault have increased by 88 percent since the department issued policy guidance in 2011 reminding colleges of their obligations under federal civil-rights law to investigate and resolve reports of sexual misconduct, she said. The department has 39 active investigations into sexual violence on college campuses.

Over the past year, activists and rape survivors across the country have publicly faulted colleges for what they see as inadequate responses. In many cases, students have filed federal complaints under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the law meant to bar sex discrimination at institutions that receive federal funds.

Yet the Office for Civil Rights is not relying solely on complaints to assess colleges’ performance on the issue, Ms. Lhamon said. Eleven percent of the agency’s proactive compliance reviews of institutions are for sexual assault. Over all, that area accounts for only a small share—around 1 percent—of all Title IX complaints.

She urged the conference attendees to view sexual assault as not just a matter of campus safety but also of civil rights. Many institutions still discourage survivors from making complaints, she said, or retaliate against students for speaking out about their assaults. Support services for students who experience assaults are still insufficient on many campuses, she said. And policies determining a campus’s response can be murky—or nonexistent.

Take up the president’s call to action, she said. Have policies that are clear, consistent, and accessible. Talk to Title IX coordinators, and make sure they have the resources they need. Meet with students and rape survivors. Emphasize that a culture of prevention and safety will touch all corners of the community.

Failing to do so, she said, can have “devastating consequences” for students who experience sexual assault. It sends a message, she said, that victimized students are worth less than the people who assault them.

“Your job as educators is to radically change that message,” Ms. Lhamon said. “My job as the chief enforcer is to radically change that message. I know we can do that together.”

She added: “And I also know that if you don’t want to do it together, I will do it to you.”

Talking over the laughter from college presidents, university lawyers, Title IX coordinators, and student-affairs administrators in attendance, she pressed on.

“Do not wait until the next assault to make a change,” Ms. Lhamon said. “Do not wait until a student files a complaint. Act now.”

In the Hot Seat

Several college presidents suggested afterward that the crisp marching orders from Washington can feel far more complicated on the campus. In a wide-ranging panel discussion soon after Ms. Lhamon’s speech, leaders of several institutions that have grappled publicly with the issue of sexual assault reflected on lessons they’ve learned. But mostly they puzzled over lingering challenges.

Presidents on the panel also fielded questions from the audience: How do you balance support for a survivor with the safety of the campus community? Do you have mandatory training programs for upperclassmen? Are the results of disciplinary proceedings publicized?

The presidents didn’t have all the answers, and didn’t pretend to. Carol L. Folt, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is currently under investigation for alleged Title IX violations, said she wants to make sure the very first person a student talks to about experiencing a sexual assault is properly trained. If that happens, she said, it’s more likely that the adjudication process will flow much more smoothly.

“We haven’t figured out how to take that initial touch and make that an affirming process,” Ms. Folt said. “How do we help people at the very start?”

Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, president of Amherst College, where a Title IX complaint recently prompted a federal investigation, said she found the tenor of many conversations about sexual assault to be misguided in their focus on “hookup culture.” That term, she said, “is based on an assumption that there’s only one way students socialize,” and that it’s to blame for sexual assault.

Toward the end of the two-hour discussion, the panel’s moderator, Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities, invited students to offer advice to the presidents. One by one, the students—from Dartmouth, Georgetown, Temple, UCLA—offered their recommendations in swift and passionate bursts: Require sensitivity training for campus police officers. Say “survivor," not “victim.” Remember that sexual assault cuts across race, class, gender, and immigration status. Create programs for graduate students. Don’t erroneously label an accused student a “rapist” or “harasser.”

One student, from the University of Virginia, delivered a particularly breathless statement urging the presidents to make major changes because the status quo, she said, satisfies no one. “Light a fire,” she said. “You’re already doing that, and I thank you.”