U.S. Government Reminds Colleges: Don’t Punish Students Who Speak Up About Sexual Assault

(Credit: Ms Magazine)

Over the past several months, students and faculty on several college campuses have filed federal complaints with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that their universities’ administrations have perpetrated rape culture by mishandling sexual assault cases. But university officials don’t always take those allegations very well. A University of North Carolina student was threatened with expulsion after speaking up about her own rape and criticizing her school’s inadequate sexual assault policy. At Occidental College, sexual violence prevention advocates claim that the administration retaliated against them after they began pushing for better policies on campus.

Perhaps that’s why federal officials found it necessary to remind university administrators that they shouldn’t take any steps to punish the people who bring issues of discrimination to the school’s attention. In a “Dear Colleague” letter distributed to universities last week, the U.S. Department of Education reiterated that students who allege civil rights violations — including enacting inadequate sexual assault policies that create a hostile environment for survivors on campus, as well as failing to accurately report sexual assault cases to the federal government — shouldn’t be afraid to speak out.

“Discriminatory practices are often only raised and remedied when students, parents, teachers, coaches, and others can report such practices to school administrators without the fear of retaliation,” Seth M. Galanter, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote in the letter. “Individuals should be commended when they raise concerns about compliance with the federal civil rights laws, not punished for doing so.”

This does not represent a change from the federal government’s current policy, but rather a strong reminder for college administrations across the country. Galanter emphasized that the Department of Education will “vigorously enforce this prohibition against retaliation.”

Unfortunately, even when college students don’t go so far as to file a formal complaint with the U.S. government, they can still face serious backlash for speaking up against rape culture. Dartmouth College is currently threatening to discipline the students who disrupted campus activities last week to protest sexual assault. Elite colleges would often rather silence students and sweep issues of sexual assault under the rug in order to “keep up appearances.” The issue has reached a fever pitch recently, and campus activists have mobilized to demand change.