Sexual Assault on Campus:
9 Views on What Will Signal Progress

When the Student Culture Changes

Laura Bennett

President of the Association for Student Conduct Administration.

Colleges have to deal with the problem of sexual assault not just after it happens, but as each student walks onto the campus. The easy answer is that progress equals fewer incidents. The reality is that progress is much harder — both to achieve and to measure. The following would demonstrate institutional and systemic progress to me:

First, there is adequate staffing for prevention and response, ample funding, and ongoing training. Every institution's strategic plan includes sexual-assault prevention, and it is part of the academic accreditation process. Title IX coordinators, student-conduct administrators, and campus law enforcement are empowered by presidents and attorneys to make relevant policy decisions.

Second, faculty discuss consent and healthy and unhealthy relationships in every course, and these conversations are congruent with those that students have after hours, in student-only spaces. Students confront misogynistic and homophobic behaviors and statements. Students become better at asking for sexual activity and communicating consent or nonconsent.

Third, everyone on campus should be able to articulate what is prohibited, how to report an incident, and what happens after reporting. Both the victims and the accused feel respected and heard during the process, even if they disagree with the outcome. There is no more confusion about the role of the campus disciplinary process and the criminal-justice system.

Fourth, comprehensive best practices (including transcript notations and admissions review processes) are used by all institutions, resulting in increased trust in the process and reducing the need for federal and state mandates. The student party culture changes as a result of healthier concepts of masculinity and multiple positive identities for all genders and orientations. Alcohol isn't needed to pursue intimacy. Finally, colleges become rape myth busters instead of perpetuators.

When Compliance Is Not Just on Paper

Annie Clark and Andrea Pino

Co-founders of End Rape on Campus

Three years ago, having barely entered our 20s, we searched through the library shelves at the University of North Carolina, looking for how women who have been sexually assaulted on campus could find justice. This was a problem that seemingly had no answer, particularly because it appeared to be unaccounted for, undocumented, and unfixable. In 2015 there are hundreds of victims who have taken on the same seemingly unfixable problem of sexual assault, and much as we did, they are taking it on single-handedly. That is precisely what needs to change.

After founding End Rape on Campus, an organization that directly supports survivors seeking to change the climate on their campuses, we have encountered the same pattern of response from university administrators: "We take these allegations very seriously." "We have convened a task force." "We are in compliance." Those may not be malicious responses, but to students they sent a clear message: You are alone in this battle.

Never in our travels has a single college president given the response that students deserve: "We will not tolerate sexual assault on this campus." Rape is a violent crime, and compliance with Title IX does not do enough to fix the problem. Blue lights, rape whistles, and task forces do not help the sexual-assault survivor who must see her perpetrator until she graduates — if she even does graduate.

An indication of change starts with acceptance and admitting a very real problem. A true testament to the seriousness of a university's response is a thorough commitment to creating a deterrence to sexual violence, and a commitment to safety, not just compliance on paper.

Higher education continues to be reactive to these systemic problems. Change will come only when colleges lead it, rather than follow the efforts of the students who expect their guidance.

When We All Protect One Another

Royce Engstrom

President of the University of Montana

Almost two years ago, we announced the resolution of the federal government's investigations into the University of Montana's handling of sexual-assault and harassment complaints. Today there's another story to tell about our campus and about the community of Missoula. Because of the hard work of many people, UM and Missoula have made important and lasting changes.

But there is still work to be done here and across the country. I will view lasting progress as having been achieved when we can keep sexual assault from happening in the first place. As we work toward that, we view substantial and real progress when:

  • Students know that their role as part of the college community is to help a friend out of a potentially unsafe situation. Progress is when we all step up for, defend, and protect one another.
  • All students know where to go on campus and in town for help, they know whom to report to, they know why there are campus administrative processes to stop, prevent, and effectively deal with sex-based discrimination and violence, and they feel they can safely be heard.
  • The continuation and strengthening of collaboration among the university, law enforcement, advocates, health-care providers, and all sectors of the community serve as models of success for other communities across the nation.
  • All students feel safe on the campus and in the community.

When We Move Beyond the Moral Panic

Samantha Harris

Director of Policy Research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Real progress against sexual assault on campus will require colleges to respond in a way that is rational and respects the rights of all involved. The climate of fear fueled by articles like the now-discredited Rolling Stone feature and movies like The Hunting Ground, together with intense governmental pressure, have created an environment in which rational discussion is virtually impossible.

If we have learned anything over the past four years, it is that colleges are terribly out of their depth when it comes to handling allegations of serious criminal wrongdoing. Rather than take matters out of colleges' hands, however, the federal government has doubled down on a broken system, issuing complex and rigid guidance as to how institutions must handle such claims if they want to keep their federal funding.

In this high-pressure environment, an increasing number of colleges have adopted single-investigator systems, in which one individual serves as detective, prosecutor, judge, and jury in internal sexual-misconduct proceedings. This often leads to life-altering decisions rendered after limited investigation and without the parties ever having the opportunity to challenge or even see one another's statements.

Even worse, because data suggest that most perpetrators of campus sexual assault are repeat offenders, overreliance on internal proceedings means that actual, dangerous offenders are being expelled and left free to continue preying on society at large.

Unfortunately, in the current climate, too many serious proposals for reform, such as calls for greater due-process protections or arguments in favor of mandatory reporting to law enforcement, are dismissed as insensitive or even sexist. Only when we move beyond the moral panic that informs almost every conversation about this issue can we begin to talk productively about how to create policies that adequately protect students and yield the fairest and most accurate outcomes.

When Victims Have the Tools to Recover

Nancy Hogshead-Makar

CEO, Champion Women

Colleges and universities will be congratulated for making real progress when they do the following:

First, give all victims the tools to recover. I have provided legal services in cases in which a university has not allowed a victim to withdraw from some classes, has placed additional tutoring, health-care, and counseling appointments on the student's schedule, and has expected full compliance with police and administrative investigations, all while threatening the student's scholarship if any of those burdens should be dropped.

If all universities provided the accommodation to victims that Title IX requires, sexual violence would not disrupt the trajectory of a woman's life so tragically. Rape would still be traumatic, but the expectation would be that the woman would pull through it, as we do most other painful experiences.

Second, give victims the ability to remove perpetrators from campus when the two are known to each other, much the same way that an employer would be expected to remove a harassing colleague. This should be done with processes that are fair to both parties.

Third, research has shown that rapists are most often predatory offenders, not bumbling men who fail to read the cues. As a result, to stop sexual assault, colleges should focus on identifying male perpetrators on campus rather than on constraining women's behavior.

When Colleges Strictly Comply With Title IX

Wendy Murphy

Adjunct Professor at the New England School of Law

The handling of violence against women is worse than ever because of the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, known as the SaVE Act. 

When SaVE was proposed, in April 2011, supporters said it would "codify" the excellent "Dear Colleague" letter, issued days earlier, in which the Department of Education emphasized that violence against women must be dealt with under Title IX's "equitable" standards — on par with those employed in the redress of violence on the basis of race, national origin, etc. 

In fact, the SaVE Act was intended to destroy the "Dear Colleague" letter and enable colleges to respond to violence against women under worse standards compared with those of other protected classes. That became more apparent as SaVE made its way through Congress, where a few good provisions were replaced with bad ones. A mandatory "preponderance of evidence" rule was removed, allowing colleges to declare victimized women inherently less credible than their attackers. SaVE also replaced Title IX's mandate of "equitable" treatment for women with a weaker promise of "fair" treatment. 

On the eve of SaVE's effective date, in 2014, I filed suit to stop it on the grounds that it violated women's constitutional rights. A federal court ruled in March 2015 that SaVE can have "no effect" on Title IX, and yet the act has already caused tremendous harm to Title IX. Contrast the recent decisive and effective civil-rights response to students chanting racist words with the refusal of most colleges to process any sexual assault as a civil-rights violation anymore.

SaVE not only subjugates women but also requires tremendous resources. Strict compliance with Title IX is simpler and minimizes the risk of litigation. Better yet, it ensures that sexist violence is understood as a civil-rights injury that harms the entire community. When all students feel injured, all students become invested in solutions, and the number of incidents goes down.

When 'Sexual Assault' Is Clearly Defined

Geoffrey Stone

Professor of Law at the University of Chicago

I would like to see progress on four fronts.

First, and most obviously, sexual assault is a serious offense. Colleges should take seriously their obligation to protect students against such behavior and to reduce the incidence of such conduct.

Second, to achieve that goal, colleges need a clear, coherent, reasonable, and workable definition of what they mean by "sexual assault." In the absence of such a definition, no one knows what is expected. The concept of sexual assault has been so confused that it is difficult for students and adjudicators to understand the "rules." A good starting point would be to make clear that it is sexual assault for X to have sex with Y unless X reasonably believes, in all the circumstances, that Y has voluntarily consented to the sexual conduct.

Third, colleges must commit to a set of fair procedures. Because a finding that one has committed sexual assault carries potentially grave consequences, colleges should employ procedures that fully respect the demands of due process. These include a right to a fair and impartial decision maker, a right to the assistance of counsel, a right to confront the witnesses, a right to present evidence, a right to appeal, and a right not to be found guilty in the absence of clear and convincing evidence.

Fourth, much of the problem stems from a lack of good judgment on the part of students. Although colleges should be reluctant to play the role of parents, in this realm colleges should do a better job of educating and informing students about appropriate behavior. It is unfortunate that students entering college have not already figured this out, but to the extent they haven't, colleges should take the initiative to engage students in thinking responsibly about these issues.

When Students Develop Relationship Skills

Holly Rider-Milkovich

Director of Sexual Assault Prevention at the University of Michigan

With the reauthorizing of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, nearly every college student in the United States receives training in developing relationship skills that promote respect, nonviolent resolution of conflict, and healthy sexuality.

In 10 years, an entire generation of college students will have received some form of education on this issue. This accomplishment alone constitutes a major advance toward the goal of changing our cultural norms to further embrace gender equality and reject gender-based violence in all its forms.

However, campus training is often delivered too late. National studies indicate that by the time students arrive at college, many have already experienced some form of dating or relationship violence, or have committed sexual or dating violence against a peer.

Researchers and youth advocates agree that students should develop these skills in early adolescence, when they are forming their beliefs about how to engage in sexual and intimate relationships, and expressing those beliefs through dating or casual sexual encounters. Real progress will be made when the prevention education we provide in college builds on a foundation of knowledge and skills about healthy relationships that students learn in middle school and high school.

To achieve this progress, communities must invest in age-appropriate, evidence-based training on respectful relationships and healthy sexuality education before students graduate from high school.

Universities must do more as well. It is insufficient to talk about healthy relationships with students only at the beginning of their freshman year. We must continue to develop students' relationship skills as they continue toward a degree. Real progress will be students graduating from college ready to be successful in their relationships with others as well as in their careers.

When Accusations Do Not Equal Guilt

Sherry Warner Seefeld

President of Families Advocating for Campus Equality

An indication of progress in the handling of sexual assault on college campuses will be when young people of both genders feel valued and receive the full support and resources of their colleges, whether claimants of wrongdoing or respondents. Campuses will be practitioners of constitutional principles, teaching and modeling appropriate civic behavior; they will be governed by administrators using calm and focused strategies to solve this serious issue.

Criminal activity will not be tolerated on campus. Those who believe they have been victims of a crime will be supported and given the aid necessary to make a report to authorities. Campus services will support this person throughout the process. The same will be true for any student who stands accused, but accusations should not equal guilt, because labels do last a lifetime.

It is imperative that we strive to achieve justice for everyone on our campuses. Colleges will model our American belief in "innocent until proven guilty." After the criminal-justice process has concluded, a campus discipline hearing may be held.

If an accusation made by a student is not criminal, the matter will become part of the college disciplinary-hearing process, a procedure meant to be an educational experience. The restorative-justice model has great potential.

Restorative justice brings together respondents, claimants, and their respective supporters to voluntarily participate in a range of processes, including dialogue, for which they are prepared and during which they are supported by professionals. The focus of this dialogue is to understand the harm caused and to seek resolution by giving all parties a voice so they can be heard and understood. Restorative justice aims to build stronger, safer, more inclusive and caring communities.

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