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The College Sexual Assault Crisis Turns A Corner

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"The College Sexual Assault Crisis Turns A Corner"

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After decades of colleges sweeping rape under the rug, activists are “cautiously optimistic” that there may be a shift on the horizon.

On Tuesday afternoon, Vice President Joe Biden will hold a press conference with campus activists and rape survivors to announce the new policy recommendations that resulted from the White House’s 90-day probe into colleges’ sexual assault policies. The guidelines are the culmination of a new federal task force that was created in January to address the campus rape crisis — and they signal an important step forward in a movement that has captured national headlines over the past several years.

The task force’s first report focuses on tactics to improve colleges’ policies in four different areas: better identifying the scope of the sexual assault issue on campuses, effectively preventing assaults before they happen, adequately responding after a student does report an instance of sexual violence, and making the federal government’s enforcement efforts more transparent. Some of the guidance included in the new report, like implementing bystander intervention programs and conducting surveys on students’ experiences with sexual assault on campus, falls in line with policies that activists on the ground have endorsed.

“Today’s recommendations are a critical step in addressing the needs of campus survivors,” Lindy Aldrich, the deputy director for the Victim Rights Law Center, a nonprofit that’s dedicated to serving sexual assault survivors, said in a statement. “We know there is a long road ahead of us, but today sends an important message that change is necessary to ensure all students can access an education free from sexual violence.”

However, the White House’s recommendations are in sharp juxtaposition with the news coverage of this issue over the past week. The report comes on the heels of sexual assault controversies that recently came to a boiling point at four prominent universities — the latest installment in a long line of public failures that have sparked protests at colleges across the country.

At American University, students are outraged about a series of leaked emails sent by members of an unrecognized fraternity at the school, detailing the young men’s casual conversations about date rape, physical assault, drug use, and other illicit activity. Brown University students are demanding reform after an undergrad found guilty of raping and strangling a classmate was given just a one semester suspension and was initially given permission to return to campus in the fall. A group of 23 Columbia University students filed a federal complaint against their school, accusing administrators of discouraging victims from reporting incidences of sexual assault, doling out punishments for rapists that are far too lenient, and failing to address the needs of LGBTQ students. And the Department of Education is threatening to remove federal funding from Tufts University for failing to comply with the federal gender equity law Title IX.

Reading the recent headlines, it can seem like the situation is just getting worse and worse. But several student activists who spoke to ThinkProgress don’t feel that way. They’re glad to see the negative press, they welcome federal action on the issue, and they’re increasingly hopeful that their time has come.

Why colleges might finally start cleaning up their acts

Higher education institutions’ concern about their reputations has been one of the biggest barriers to improving sexual assault policies on campus. College administrators don’t want to do anything to communicate to prospective students that their school is an unsafe place to attend, and many of them worry that publicizing efforts to reform the way they handle rape will send that message.

But now that campus sexual assault is an issue that’s gained federal attention, it’s clear that it’s not contained to a small handful of bad actors. The White House’s task force is setting the stage for universities to get in front of the news cycle by taking a proactive approach.

“Colleges taking a stand on it won’t be saying ‘we have a problem’ — rather, they’ll be one of many voices, coming from the federal government down, saying that we want to do this better,” Daniel Rappaport, the sexual assault prevention coordinator at American University, said. “It gives them a unified opportunity to avoid that bad press and really frame this in a positive way.”

There’s already some evidence of this dynamic unfolding in the Ivy League.

After Dartmouth College was plagued with sexual assault controversies over the past year — including massive student protests and national petition drives — the applications to the prestigious New Hampshire school dropped 14 percent. “That really brought awareness to the Ivies, at least, because a fellow Ivy lost a bunch of applicants,” Lena Barsky, an activist who attends Brown, noted.

In response, Dartmouth administrators have launched a campaign to strengthen the school’s sexual assault policies, including creating a sexual assault prevention center and a bystander intervention program. The school’s president has pledged to make changing the campus culture a top priority. Although some students are skeptical of the PR move, the school is certainly not running away from talking about the issue anymore. The administration is running a series of targeted online ads to direct prospective students to a page detailing the steps Dartmouth is taking to improve its rape policies.

“Dartmouth’s president is essentially saying, anyone who’s smart knows there are problems everywhere, and prospective students will want to see that we’re recognizing those problems and taking steps to fix it. I think more and more administrators will start realizing he’s totally right about that,” Harpo Jaeger, another Brown activist, said.

Another elite school, Cornell University, recently revamped its sexual assault policy proactively, before the campus was plagued with a high-profile controversy.

“At the end of the day, these very well-respected institutions that tried to cover it up, or did not acknowledge it, or did not take proactive steps, are now essentially having their names dragged through the mud because they didn’t do the right thing,” Tracey Vitchers, the communications coordinator for SAFER: Students Active For Ending Rape, said. “In a lot of ways, that peer pressure is helping other institutions look back and reflect and say — I don’t want that to happen here, I don’t want our campus to be viewed as somewhere that’s hostile to survivors.”

Federal attention from all angles

If some members of Congress get their way, that type of peer pressure will help continue to push this issue forward. Led by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), a group of lawmakers is pressuring U.S. News & World Report to update its influential college rankings to include data on how schools are handling sexual assault. They hope that will make it even more obvious to prospective students which schools are taking this issue seriously — and which aren’t. “I think when it starts to affect your rankings on the U.S. News and World Report ‘bible,’ as it’s received by both universities and parents evaluating colleges with their kids, then we’ll see things change,” Speier recently pointed out.

U.S. senators are getting involved, too. Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY), who recently introduced competing measures to change the way the military handles rape cases, are now turning their attention to college campuses. McCaskill is gathering information about colleges’ current sexual assault policies, and both lawmakers have hinted that they’re preparing to introduce national legislation in this area.

“McCaskill and Gillibrand seem like they really get it, which is really exciting,” Jaeger said.

That may be because they’re soliciting input from activists on the ground. Vitchers will meet with Gillbrand on Wednesday to talk over potential forthcoming legislation in this area. And John Kelly, a sexual assault survivor at Tufts University who worked with other activists to create Know Your IX, a series of resources to empower students to file federal complaints against their own colleges, is meeting with McCaskill’s staff on Tuesday.

“Having any sort of support within the Senate is huge,” Kelly said. “And this is the kind of thing that’s close to home for the people who are working on it. It’s the same people who were at the forefront of conversations about sexual violence in the military — they’ve been looking at these really problematic institutions in America where sexual violence is sort of rampant, and doing pretty great work. I’m excited to see it’s the same people. I’m hopeful.”

Like the White House’s attention to the issue, the lawmakers who are getting involved can help brand the campus rape crisis as a national epidemic.

“If they make big moves, it will really give big weight to what students on the ground are doing,” Rappaport said. “This is such a huge opportunity to make significant, meaningful change in the long term. I hope that all colleges can rise to the occasion, and won’t want to be behind the curve on this one.”

Moving the conversation away from Title IX

Obviously, there’s still a lot left to be done. The string of negative headlines hasn’t abated. Activists continue to accuse administrators of paying lip service to the issue of sexual assault reform without actually making any substantive changes. The students whose campuses are currently embroiled in controversy are frustrated.

Some of those issues stem from the emphasis on complying with the federal laws in this area.

Under Title IX and the Clery Act, colleges are required to adequately respond to sexual assaults among students and accurately report how many assaults are occurring on campus. If they violate the Clery Act, they can be subject to fines. If they’re charged with failing to comply with Title IX, which requires schools to keep their academic settings free of sex discrimination by addressing any type of violence that’s creating a “hostile environment” for a student, they can lose all of their federal funding. Students who file federal complaints are alleging that their college administrations aren’t in compliance here, typically triggering an investigation into the matter.

Although Title IX and the Clery Act are powerful tools to help students push for change, the threat of federal investigations can lead colleges to fixate on making sure they’re following those laws — without much of a consideration for the other factors involved in creating good policies in this area. Students aren’t always satisfied with schools’ persistent focus on eliminating any chance of liability, which involves how they respond to rape reports, at the expense of effective prevention programs to lower the number of assaults happening in the first place.

“Given that campuses are very concerned with compliance, they focus almost all of their energy on response and little attention is given to prevention,” Emma Halling, a student activist at the University of Kansas, said. “The offices charged with Title IX compliance are often overburdened and understaffed, so attention goes almost exclusively to the responsive mandates in VAWA and Clery and not to unmandated prevention efforts.”

“It’s one thing to have laws or memorandums or calls to action that focus on supporting survivors after they’re assaulted — that’s incredibly important and incredibly necessary — but if we’re also not taking the steps needed to prevent assault before it occurs, we’re only doing half the battle,” Vitchers pointed out.

Every activist who talked to ThinkProgress said that universities should expand their prevention programs. Most cited the same types of policies to accomplish that goal, like mandating sexual assault prevention education, hiring victim advocates, training staff about these issues, and funding accessible and effective rape crisis centers.

The White House has indicated that it’s listening to those concerns. “Participants in our listening sessions roundly urged the Task Force to make prevention a top priority,” the new report notes — before going on to outline evidence-based strategies for implementing good prevention programs, a national public service campaign to emphasize enthusiastic consent, and a commitment to work with the Justice Department the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop additional resources in this area.

Thanks to amendments to the Clery Act that were included in last year’s reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, all colleges will soon be required to provide sexual assault prevention programming, too. The Department of Education is negotiating the final rules for that new provision, and hopes to complete that process next year.

A national student movement

Week after week of coverage of college administrations’ failures doesn’t necessarily feel like something to celebrate. But activists emphasize that the issue isn’t necessarily getting worse; it’s just getting more press attention.

“Just because it hasn’t always been discussed doesn’t mean it hasn’t been happening. We know that one in five women and one in 71 men have experienced rape or attempted rape. Those are really incredibly shocking statistics,” Elizabeth McElvein, an activist at Scripps College, pointed out. “The fact that wasn’t front page news before was a huge part of the problem. Now that people are concerned about it — in my mind, that’s positive.”

“A friend from another school texted me this morning and said, ‘Are you upset that all this stuff is coming out about Brown? Do you feel unhappy and wish this had been kept silent?’ And it’s like, of course not!” Barsky recounted in an interview with ThinkProgress last week. “We’re lucky this is happening at Brown because now our school gets to become safer.”

Making colleges safer certainly doesn’t happen overnight. Nonetheless, sexual assault activists are encouraged by an emerging movement that’s made significant strides in a relatively short amount of time.

The wave of federal complaints filed over the past two years resulted from highly coordinated student action that hasn’t really been seen before. Students banded together to work across campuses to help each other navigate the federal complaint process. The Office for Civil Rights is currently about halfway through its fiscal year, and it’s already received 33 different Title IX complaints related to schools’ sexual assault policies — more than it received during all of 2013.

“There’s a potential for a national student movement to emerge out of this. I think it’s too soon to say exactly to say what it will look like, but the sense I’ve been getting is that this is an issue whose time has come, and we’re at kind of at a historical moment,” Jaeger said. “Social norms are evolving. The people making decisions understand that rape is a problem. The question becomes, how do we show them that they have a role to play in fixing this problem? If they act, they can make a difference — it’s not insurmountable.”

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