Six women filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education on Thursday alleging that Vanderbilt University, a prestigious school in Nashville, has failed to adequately respond to incidences of sexual assault on campus. The group of women, who are current and former Vanderbilt students, accuse university officials of creating a hostile environment that dissuades victims from coming forward and fails to provide them with the support they need.
Under federal law, universities are required to accurately report the number of sexual crimes that occur on campus and protect female students from gender-based discrimination that could interfere with their education. College students across the country have increasingly leveraged these legal requirements to push for better sexual assault policies.
Filing a complaint with the federal government is the first step in a process that can lead to a formal investigation and, eventually, charges for the university. Over the past year, students have banded to together to file a rush of complaints that have led to investigations at colleges like University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Occidental College, Swarthmore College, and the University of California, Berkeley.
The move to file a federal complaint against Vanderbilt was organized by Sarah O’Brien, a senior at the university who was raped in 2010. “The big thing for all of us involved is to give voice to a problem that is not addressed properly on our campus,” O’Brien told the Tennessean.
O’Brien and her fellow students’ decision to go after the university comes on the heels of a high-profile sexual assault case at Vanderbilt that remains under investigation. Four Vanderbilt football players have been charged with sexually assaulting an unconscious woman in a dorm room, and there are questions about whether the school’s football coaches were involved in the case in any way. The case has drawn some comparisons to other infamous rape cases that have involved student athletes, like Steubenville and Maryville.
In a testament to the coordination across college campuses that’s pushing this issue forward, O’Brien helped students at another prestigious school, Amherst College, file their own federal complaint on the same day. Two former Amherst students allege that their own administration has allowed a “sexually hostile environment” to flourish, spurred by some of the unaffiliated fraternities on campus.
Officials at both schools have promised to cooperate fully with the U.S. Department of Education, and maintain that they’ve already made “significant changes” to improve their sexual assault policies on campus.