Making Campuses Safer From Rape

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

August 26, 2013

I have had a very satisfying career as a university professor for more than 15 years now. Back in 1988, however, I couldn't have imagined such a future for myself. I was a junior in college and had just survived a sexual assault. It was a stranger rape. It was brutal. It happened in my off-campus apartment, just blocks away from the university. I learned later that the perpetrator was a relative of the president of the Board of Trustees at my university.

At the time there were few university resources available for survivors like myself. I had to contact each of my professors to see if I could get extensions on my papers and exams. I was left to navigate the legal system without guidance or support. I sought medical services on my own. I arranged to have friends escort me to and from classes. And, there were no organized counseling programs for survivors on campus. As a result, along with several others, I helped to create one of the nation's first survivor-run support groups at a university.

Situations like that are far less likely to occur today, thanks to a constellation of crucial laws—including the recently passed Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which included the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act provision (Campus SaVE), an amendment to the Clery Act that took effect on March 7, 2013. The law puts teeth into a document issued on April 4, 2011, by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, known as the Title IX Dear Colleague Letter, about how colleges need to respond to sexual-assault allegations.

Until now, some people have argued, institutional compliance with the letter has been uneven. Now colleges must observe it more closely, evaluate it more fully, and establish more procedures to ensure compliance. Campus SaVE puts the response to sexual violence closer to the forefront of colleges' work and institutional responsibilities.

These laws go a long way toward supporting survivors' rights on campuses. They establish procedures for hearings, create bystander-education programs, and open the way for development of innovative staff-training programs. They also recognize the institutional responsibility for handling any on-campus consequences of an off-campus sexual assault.

If such measures had been in place in 1988, survivors like me would not have been left alone to cobble together our own ways of trying to cope with the aftermath of what had happened to us. Today, various officials from the university—working in a coordinated effort—must aid survivors who come forward, and make them aware of their options. The laws also emphasize universities' responsibilities in the prevention of sexual violence and offer a framework to keep university officials from causing further harm to students already traumatized by a sexual assault.

Other provisions in the laws show promise of being helpful with specific problems that I experienced years ago. One example is the provision in the Violence Against Women Act that mandates penalties for misconduct (including the encouraging of improper reporting) in the implementation of the law by university officials. When I was raped, a university official phoned me and attempted to thwart me from pursuing prosecution. I surmised that this was at least partially the result of the institutional connections of the perpetrator. The new laws, which demand impartial investigations of complaints and compliance reviews, would surely help in such a situation.

But everything about the success of these laws will hinge on the crime victims' knowing what their rights are and what services are available. A recent survey conducted by the volunteer group Students Active For Ending Rape (Safer) found that 26 percent of students didn't know if their college had a sexual-assault policy. Fewer than half—42 percent—said they had been informed of their college's policy during orientation. As a result of students' not being properly informed by their own campuses, many student survivors of sexual violence have not known about the grievance processes and other protections available to them.

That's why, while I am delighted to herald these new measures and the promise they hold for improved institutional responsibility regarding sexual violence on and off campus, I am waiting to see if they increase student awareness. That won't happen through a single set of orientations for students and staff or through training sessions in residence halls. It requires a widespread effort to think through the reasons for sexual violence. The new protections must involve not only an umbrella of laws designed to deal with assaults but also a concerted effort to change university culture.

We must realize that although the Campus SaVE provision provides a vital scaffolding, much work remains as campus officials begin fleshing out its mandates. Putting the law in place will very likely require training across campus communities at every level. It will also require that disparate groups work in concert more regularly. The best implementations of this law will recognize that the effects of sexual assault on its survivors can often last for years and require long-term follow-up.

There is a need for more survivor-to-survivor support systems and collaborations between college administrations and student-activist groups. But let me be clear: On-campus grievance procedures (sometimes the only justice a survivor can find) are no substitute for criminal prosecutions, and the new law must do nothing to discourage victims of rape from going to the police.

Speaking as a survivor, a professor, and an administrator, I believe that colleges now have a great opportunity. We have the chance to become primary cultural places where sexual violence—how it functions to silence people, what it does to undermine lives and communities—is rejected overtly, fundamentally, and directly at every level. If properly and thoughtfully applied, the Campus SaVE Act and related laws could turn colleges into exemplary institutions with cultures and procedures that make clear their opposition to sexual violence, and their support for its victims.

Laura Gray-Rosendale is a professor of English at Northern Arizona University and the author of College Girl: A Memoir (State University of New York Press, 2013).