As colleges across the country remain under fire for failing to adequately address rape cases on campus, Dartmouth College is trying to change the conversation. The elite school — which has been taking measures to overhaul its own sexual assault policies after some high-profile controversies over the past year — is currently hosting a national summit on the issue of sexual assault. The five-day conference hopes to “provide institutional participants the chance to learn about best practices and policy analyses to apply on their own campuses.”
Representatives from more than 60 colleges and universities are in attendance this week. Considering the fact that the summit kicked off just a few days after Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) released the results of a national survey confirming that many schools don’t have the right type of sexual assault policies in place, they certainly have a lot to talk about.
So what have colleges been learning? Here are the biggest takeways so far:
Colleges that keep mishandling rape cases will lose their funding.
Under Title IX, the federal gender equity law that requires colleges to adequately investigate rape cases, schools can lose their funding if they’re botching their response to sexual assault. The government has never actually wielded that power; even though colleges have a well-documented history of failures in this area, none of them has ever gotten their federal funding yanked. But Catharine Lhamon, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education — the department charged with overseeing Title IX complaints — wants schools to know that may not be the case for long.
On Monday, Lhamon told the summit attendees that she won’t have any problem with implementing this punishment in the future if schools consistently mess up. “Do not think it’s an empty threat,” Lhamon said. “It’s one I’ve made four times in the 10 months I’ve been in office. So it’s one that’s very much in use.”
Campus rapists are probably serial offenders.
David Lisak, a former clinical psychologist who now consults the U.S. military and college administrations on issues of sexual assault, is one of the primary presenters at Dartmouth’s summit. Lisak’s research has demonstrated that the link between sexual assault and alcohol isn’t actually as clear as many college administrators think — in other words, drinking alcohol doesn’t inherently put college women at more risk for being assaulted. Instead, alcohol is typically just one tool among many that rapists employ to manipulate their victims. Campus sexual assaults aren’t merely a miscommunication between two drunk and well-meaning students; in fact, college rapists are typically serial offenders.
This week, Lisak told college administrators to start approaching sexual assault allegations in that context, and try to bring in enough witnesses to establish that an accused rapist is a serial offender. He used the example of a student who reports they were approached by a classmate selling drugs. “In response to that, there is no university in the country that would simply say, ‘Oh, well, let’s see if we can figure out if there’s evidence that an attempted sale of meth was made at 10 p.m. last night in a dorm.’ What the university would do is they may look at that evidence, but they would also immediately start an investigation to see if this individual is a dealer,” Lisak noted.
That way, colleges wouldn’t necessarily have to throw out a rape case simply because it’s difficult to confirm a victim’s account of the night they were assaulted. Instead of worrying about a “he-said-she-said” dynamic, school administrators could get a clearer picture of potential perpetrators’ past behavior. Then, confirmed serial rapists hopefully won’t get off the hook as easily as perpetrators typically do now.
Schools have to figure out how to tackle rape culture.
Much of this week’s summit has focused on cultural factors that contribute to an environment where gender violence is seen as the norm — something that activists refer to as “rape culture.” Presenters pointed out that the media often normalizes acquaintance rape; for instance, Robin Thicke’s chart topper “Blurred Lines” has been banned at several U.K. universities for that reason. They also pointed to companies that specifically target young people in order to sell products like alcohol by relying on images that portray young girls as sexualized and men as controlling and violent.
Presenters pointed out that colleges need to do their part to challenge this culture by demonstrating that joking about sexual violence isn’t acceptable. A good first step would be to crack down on the students who engage in pro-rape chants on campus, wear misogynist T-shirts, or circulate inappropriate emails among their fraternities or sororities. Colleges could also refrain from inviting any performers or guest speakers to campus that don’t align with their mission of gender equality and sexual assault prevention.
“Wherever we are harboring rape culture, that needs to be eradicated yesterday,” Lhamon told the audience.
Students should be allowed to have a say.
Student activists around the country have been a driving force behind the recent attention to issues of sexual assault. Although those students have brought some negative press to their institutions, and administrators’ first instinct might be to preserve their schools’ reputations by quieting them, presenters urged colleges to take the opposite approach. Administrators should be working with activists to address their concerns. “The activists who are shaking their fists at you are not your enemies,” Lisak pointed out. “Their outrage should be our outrage.”
Presenters pointed out that in addition to engaging student activists, colleges could also do more to reach out more broadly to the student body. If more schools conducted “campus climate surveys” to poll students about their experiences with sexual violence, administrators could get a clearer picture of the scope of the problem, especially since the vast majority of college rape victims don’t report the crime to campus authorities.
Even the summit itself provides some examples of how colleges could improve in this area. Activists noted that very few students are present at this week’s event. A Dartmouth student who helped organize the conference told the Valley News that she’s pleased with her administration’s recent attention to issues of sexual assault, but wishes that students had more power in the decision making process.