College Campuses Are Beginning To Take Steps To Address Rape Culture

(Credit: Where Is Your Line)

The issue of sexual assault on college campuses has captured headlines over the past several months, as students and faculty on several college campuses have filed formal complaints with the U.S. Department of Education alleging that their universities’ administrations have underreported rape cases or mistreated rape victims. In response, a network of campus activists have taken advantage of the current momentum around rape culture to push for change.

Now, on campuses across the country, their work is beginning to have an impact. Change is slow, and there’s no guarantee that university administrations will make an immediate turnaround. But the following institutions are taking small steps in the right direction to ensure that students’ concerns are being heard and sexual crimes are being taken seriously:

University of Montana: After a yearlong federal investigation into the way that UM officials deal with sexual crimes, the university reached a settlement with the Department of Justice and the Department of Education last week. UM agreed to an overhaul of its sexual assault policies, which the administration will implement over the next two years. The federal government is hailing the UM settlement as a success story and hoping it can serve as a model for campuses across the country, although some campus activists are a bit more skeptical that it will bring about dramatic change. But it’s a start. In another encouraging sign for Montana students, the DOJ also reached a settlement with the Missoula Police Department this week, which will officially compel the local police force to stop mistreating survivors of sexual assault.

University of North Carolina: UNC is currently undergoing a federal investigation for mishandling rape cases on campus, and a new campus task force charged with resolving the issue is hoping to look to the University of Montana for guidance as it works to update its own protocol. The university formed a 22-member task force this week to review UNC’s sexual assault policies and look for areas of reform. Since the five women who filed the federal complaint against UNC alleged that the current sexual assault policy was too vague, perhaps partly because it was written by just a handful of select administrators, the task force will include student and faculty representatives.

Stanford University: At the beginning of this month, Stanford announced that the administration will partner with student groups to initiate a campus-wide campaign around issues of sexual assault and rape culture. The student activists who initiated the campaign explained that they hope it will help spark a broader conversation about preventing sexual assaults by teaching students more about consent. “The idea behind it was that there are conversations had about sexual assault on campus but there isn’t always space for discourse just about consent, or having a more positive constructive conversation about consent,” undergrad explained.

University of Notre Dame: Two years ago, the Department of Education investigated Notre Dame’s handling of sexual assault cases and recommended that the administration strengthen its policy for reporting and investigating these types of crimes on campus. Since then, the administration has worked to overhaul its system, and developed a student questionnaire to solicit more feedback about areas it can improve. At the end of last month, the results from that survey revealed that the majority of the student body understood how to navigate the new system for reporting sexual crimes, and 75 percent of students said they believed the administration handled rape cases “effectively and fairly.” Students did indicate that they want university officials to offer more education around consent.

The University of Maryland: This week, administrators at UMD agreed to explore a sexual assault awareness pilot program for all incoming freshmen, the first step toward implementing a proposal to require every incoming student to attend a mandatory workshop on the issue. Under the pilot, about 30 percent of next year’s incoming students would receive information about preventing sexual crimes. And earlier this month, the student senate voted to expand the university’s jurisdiction to address sexual violations — a move that could help ensure that rape victims whose assaults occur off campus can still access administrative resources.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the issue is anywhere close to resolved. Universities still have a long way to go to effectively eliminate the rape culture dynamics that often permeate their student disciplinary systems. A recent national survey conducted by the group Students Active For Ending Rape asked college students to grade their school’s sexual assault policies, and half of the respondents gave them a C or lower. A mere 9.8 percent of students gave their university an A for handling rape cases well.