One Simple Solution To Make Sure Colleges Start Taking Rape Seriously

Brown University students line up for graduation with red tape on their caps to symbolize Title IX CREDIT: Storify via Daphne Xu
Brown University students line up for graduation with red tape on their caps to symbolize Title IX CREDIT: Storify via Daphne Xu

Colleges across the country continue to come under fire for mishandling cases of sexual violence on campus. Practically every week, new information comes to light about yet another school that failed to adequately protect its students. Despite the increased national attention to the issue, universities continue to avoid punishing rapists and pursue campus reforms that seem like little more than PR spin. Is there any way to actually get college administrators to start doing the right thing?

Two activists have come up with a simple policy solution to do just that. Alexandra Brodsky and Dana Bolger — the founders and current co-directors of Know Your IX, a survivor-led group working to address campus violence — want to reform the enforcement process for the law that forms the foundation of their group’s name. They want the colleges that fall short of Title IX to be slapped with a fine.

Title IX is a federal gender equity law that requires colleges to ensure their students can pursue an education free from sex discrimination, which includes incidents of sexual violence or sexual harassment. If schools aren’t adequately investigating rape reports, or if they’re not paying enough attention to victims’ needs in the aftermath of an assault, they’re failing to meet the standards set by Title IX. This has become an important aspect of campus activism around sexual assault, as students at dozens of schools have filed Title IX complaints alleging their administrations are falling short.

There’s just one problem: Once colleges are accused of violating Title IX, not much happens to them.

We need to give them incentives to do the right thing.

“The big missing piece has been the actual enforcement of the law. It doesn’t matter if you have a fast or a transparent investigation if, at the end of the day, schools aren’t really facing any repercussions for violating the law,” Brodsky explained in an interview with ThinkProgress. “There are so many incentives for schools to keep sexual violence quiet — they don’t want it affecting their admissions numbers, they don’t want the bad press. We need to give them incentives to do the right thing.”

After students file a Title IX complaint, the Department of Education will initiate an investigation. There are currently more than 50 different schools being investigated by the government for potential Title IX violations, a process that can take months and even years to resolve. Then, if federal officials conclude that the school did breach its obligations under the law, they typically reach a “voluntary resolution” with the administration and the college gets a second chance to clean up its act. Although colleges can, in theory, lose their federal funding as a punishment for violating Title IX, the government has never actually wielded this authority.

Although Brodsky and Bolger want schools to face some kind of financial consequence for mishandling rape cases, they don’t necessarily want the government to start yanking federal funding in its entirety. According to Brodsky, that’s an “unhelpful response” that would end up being an “absolute disaster for students,” since it would ultimately jeopardize their research grants and financial aid. But as Title IX is currently interpreted by the government, it’s essentially “all or nothing” — schools either lose all federal funding or receive very little punishment. So they’ve come up with somewhat of a compromise.

“We want Congress to give the Department of Education explicit authority to levy fines,” Brodsky said. “If you could be fined for violations, that sends a very clear message to schools and to the public that what you’re doing is not okay, and that you’re violating the law. But it wouldn’t hurt students.”

Earlier this month, the Know Your IX team launched a petition calling on Congress to “take action to give Title IX teeth” that has already garnered more than 6,500 signatures. Even if the potential fines don’t hurt colleges’ bottom lines, the group argues that they’ll still hurt schools’ public images in a society that’s becoming increasingly aware of which institutions aren’t doing a good job in this area. “This is a fight we can win,” the petition notes.

If we’re going to celebrate students for coming forward, we have to make sure that we, as a country, have their backs.

Indeed, it’s not a particularly radical proposal. Colleges already face these type of fines when they violate the Clery Act, a different federal law that requires them to accurately report the number of rape cases that occur on campus. It wouldn’t be that difficult to draft additional legislative language to extend to Title IX. In fact, activists expect some type of proposal along these lines to be included in the forthcoming campus sexual assault legislation that will be introduced by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) any day now.

Ultimately, as student activists throughout the nation continue to demand an end to the college sexual assault crisis, Title IX reform could help ensure that their efforts aren’t in vain.

“This very much comes out of the experiences of organizers,” Brodsky, a current student at Yale Law School, noted. “Many of us have filed Title IX complaints, which has been sort of the celebrated tool over the past year, and have been really displeased with the outcome. If we’re going to celebrate students for coming forward, we have to make sure that we, as a country, have their backs. If they’re going to stand up for their rights, we need to make sure that’s a right in reality and not just on paper.”