Courtesy of USA Today
Pressure on college and university administrations to take sexual assault cases more seriously is intensifying, and activists promise more lobbying as the school year nears an end.
Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., canceled classes for one day last week following a dust-up in which protesters — citing instances of sexual assault, racism and homophobia — shouted “Dartmouth has a problem” to prospective students making campus visits.
Prominent attorney Gloria Allred, flanked at a news conference earlier this month by more than a dozen young women, announced she was filing a federal civil rights complaint against Occidental College in Los Angeles, where, she said at least 37 current and former students, were “raped, sexually assaulted, battered, harassed and/or retaliated against for speaking out against sexual violence.”
The same day, two students at Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia filed a federal complaint saying the school failed to publicly report sexual assault crimes.
An informal national network, composed mostly of students, alumni and faculty who have spoken publicly about their negative experiences on campus, is working with activists at about 50 schools to promote awareness of federal laws related to sexual misconduct and, in an unspecified number of cases, prepare federal complaints of their own.
More than 300 students, faculty and alumni are involved in the network’s campaign, called Know Your IX, which aims to ensure that, by the start of the fall 2013 semester, all college students know his or her rights under Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bars discrimination in education.
“Right now is the time for this,” says IX Network member Annie Clark, one of five women to file federal complaints in January against the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, her alma mater. The university is cooperating with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which is investigating whether the school created a hostile climate for students who reported a sexual assault.
Momentum has been building nationally since April 2011, when the Education Department issued a set of guidelines for colleges on how to handle sexual assault allegations. Since then, students at Yale, Wesleyan, Amherst and elsewhere have called attention to their mistreatment by college administrations after being sexually assaulted. The federal Violence Against Women Act, signed into law in March by President Obama, includes a provision that requires colleges and universities to adopt policies to address and prevent campus sexual violence.
Complaints have addressed a range of concerns, including failure to alert the campus community when crimes occur, attempts by school officials to dissuade students from reporting crimes and minimal consequences for perpetrators. (Last week, NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, featured an episode that drew from many of the complaints.) During the press conference announcing the action against Occidental, Kenda Woolfson, a recent graduate, said a dean discouraged her from reporting a rape, telling her it would be a “long and grueling process” and that she should “just enjoy my senior year.”
“The big motivation for these colleges and universities is to keep their (crime) numbers low … because it looks bad,” says Swarthmore student Mia Ferguson, who with another student, Hope Brinn, filed a complaint there based on incidents that happened to them. A second complaint there is in the works, she says.
Some students have received threats for speaking out, most notably University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill sophomore Landen Gambill, who says she was told she could be expelled after she talked about her experiences involving an ex-boyfriend, whom she did not identify by name.
Many colleges are reviewing policies related to sexual misconduct under the guidelines established in 2011. Occidental College, for example, says it formed a task force in February to address compliance. Swarthmore president Rebecca Chopp announced that it would launch a similar review of policies, procedures and sanctions.
According to a statement from the Education Department, the Office for Civil Rights has received 38 complaints this year against postsecondary schools that involved allegations related to sexual harassment. Of those, 10 involved allegations specifically related to sexual violence. Last week, the Education Department, noting that “a significant portion” of complaints in recent years have included retaliation claims, issued a letter reminding colleges and universities “that retaliation is also a violation of Federal law.”
“The movement has been afoot for some time but the complexion of it has changed because now you have activists on the campus,” says Steven Healy, a campus crime consultant whose firm, Margolis Healy & Associates has been hired by a number of campus administrations. “It appears that this is the beginning of what could be a very long summer and fall for institutions.”