Government brings transparency to sexual violence on college campuses

The U.S. Department of Education last week released a list of universities under investigation for instances of sexual assault, bringing a new sense of transparency to an often silent issue.

The list, published by the department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), lists 55 universities with open cases based on their handling of sexual assault complaints. The investigations are categorized as potential violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in all education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance,” according to the press release.

Two Illinois schools – University of Chicago and Knox College – made the list, as well as notable universities like Harvard, Princeton and the University of Michigan. The UChicago case began when a sexual assault victim filed a Title IX complaint in April 2013, according to the Chicago Tribune. The student was reportedly forced into a mediation session with the accused assailant, and the incident was treated as a dispute instead of sexual violence.

According to a statement released by UChicago, OCR in January requested additional information about the case. The office asked to review records, interview staff and meet with students to discuss their experiences with university policy.

“Building on a history of productive collaboration with the OCR, the University has made every effort to comply with the spirit and letter of this inquiry, and will incorporate any OCR findings into its ongoing efforts to provide for the best possible campus climate,” the university said. “The University is committed to ensuring that its educational programs and work environment are free from unlawful discrimination under Title IX.”

When the UChicago and other cases conclude, OCR will disclose upon request if it has entered into resolution agreement with the university or if there wasn’t enough evidence of a Title IX violation to pursue the case further. Meanwhile, the White House released a statement detailing a series of initiatives to help combat sexual assault on college campuses.

The administration will, among other things, provide universities with a toolkit to conduct campus climate surveys and offer specialized training for campus officials. The White House also launched a website Tuesday – NotAlone.gov – that publicizes Title IX resolution agreements, Clery Act reports and other enforcement data. As of Sunday, the only data listed in Illinois was Northern Illinois University’s 2005 Clery Act.

Kathleen Arnold, a political science professor at DePaul, applauded the government’s initiatives. She said they’re especially noteworthy because they follow a “general silence” on these issues by the Bush administration. “It’s just great that the administration’s taking action on this,” she said. Going forward, Arnold maintained that society needs to discuss what constitutes as assault and develop an understanding of what force really means.

But most importantly, she believes the legal system could use some improvements. The initiatives are significant, she said, but the law needs to change in order for the politics to be effective. “The legal mechanisms for prosecuting this sort of stuff are pretty bad,” she said. To illustrate her point, Arnold cited a case at Virginia Tech that made its way to the Supreme Court in 2000.

In United States v. Morrison, the court ruled against a provision of the Violence Against Women Act that allowed victims to pursue cases at the federal level. This means incidents of sexual violence can now be handled only by state governments. “People don’t realize how imbalanced a lot of the law is,” Arnold said. Universities provide another layer of complexity to this issue. Arnold believes they are at the front line of the sexual assault debate, and when the front line is broken, she said, the rest of the process is susceptible to imperfections.

Plus, not all universities are public institutions, which means not all of them are bound by the same regulations. Arnold believes Virginia Tech – a private institution – shouldn’t have used the legal system to take advantage of its situation.

“Even if they weren’t bound by state law, they should be better than the state law,” she said. However, the issue of sexual assault on college campuses is becoming more prominent – and not just among government officials. UltraViolet, a national organization devoted to women’s rights, has started a petition asking the Princeton Review to include school rankings based on campus sexual assault.

“Stories about colleges mishandling rape cases have become commonplace in the press, and rape on campus has become a national crisis,” the organization said on its website. “Here’s a simple truth: Students and parents have a right to know if the school they’re thinking of enrolling in has a problem with rape.”