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Sexual assault on campus

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Colleges and schools are required to protect students from sexual assault under Title IX

Title IX is best known for the effect it had on women's athletics because it required that colleges provide equal opportunities in sports to men and women. After it took effect, female participation in college and high school sports more than quadrupled.

But Title IX is more than that: passed in 1972 as part of a broader education law, it prohibits any discrimination in education based on sex. Schools and colleges that receive federal funding can't deny opportunities to students based on their gender.

The Obama administration has used the statute to examine how colleges handle accusations of sexual assault. The Education Department sent a letter in 2011 reminding colleges of their responsibility to deal with allegations of sexual harassment and assault that they either know about or should reasonably know about. Since then, the department has opened investigations into more than 50 colleges for alleged mishandling of sexual assault on campus.

Many of the allegations are at high-profile elite colleges:

  • At Yale, just one student found responsible for "nonconsensual sex" in the first half of 2013 was suspended; the rest were given written reprimands or no punishment at all, the Huffington Post reported.
  • At Brown, a student found responsible for sexual violence was suspended for a year, even though that meant he and his victim would be on campus at the same time after he returned.
  • When a freshman at St. Mary's College was sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player and reported the assault to Notre Dame campus police, the university didn't begin an investigation for more than two weeks. During the delay, the student killed herself.

Colleges theoretically are at risk of losing their eligibility for federal money — a significant threat given the size of the federal student loan and grant programs — if they're found to be in violation of Title IX . But when the Education Department has found violations of Title IX in sexual assault cases, it has reached voluntary agreements with the colleges on remedying the situation. One agreement, at Tufts University, was revoked in April 2014.

A low proportion of sexual assault victims report their experiences, meaning colleges have a hard time determining the scope of the problem. Sexual assault can have an impact on students' academic experiences, making them more likely to skip classes or drop out. It has many other long-term effects on survivors, including increased risk of depression, substance abuse, and self-harm.

How common is sexual assault on college campuses?

About one in five women experienced an attempted or completed sexual assault while in college, a 2007 study funded by the Department of Justice found. This includes women who reported their assault to the police and those who may have never spoken to authorities.

The term "sexual assault" covers rape and other forms of unwanted sexual contact, whether it was physically forced on the victim or committed while she was asleep, drugged, drunk or otherwise unable to consent. (Statistics on male victims are much more difficult to obtain, although between 3 to 4 percent of men report being raped in their lifetime.)

Many women didn't report to authorities that they had been assaulted, the same study found. Thirteen percent of those who told researchers they'd experienced forcible sexual assault went to the police or campus security; among those who were incapacitated when they were assaulted, just 2 percent did so.

Why are colleges being scrutinized for mishandling sexual assault?

Studies have found the majority of sexual assault survivors don't report their experiences, particularly if they were drunk, drugged or otherwise incapacitated when they were assaulted. But students who do report their assaults to colleges and file formal complaints have felt poorly served by the campus disciplinary process.

Survivors of sexual assault at more than 80 colleges say campus authorities failed to help them and have filed complaints with the Education Department. They accuse colleges of mishandling reports of sexual assault, inadequately disciplining students found guilty, and not accurately reporting sexual assault.

Students found responsible for a sexual assault are expelled in a minority of cases, the Center for Public Integrity found in a 2010 investigation. They're more frequently suspended or given social probation, or not punished at all, meaning that they're still on campus with their victims.

At Indiana University, a freshman was raped by a fellow student while she was drunk her freshman year and reported the rape both to campus police and to the university's student support staff. Hearings during the disciplinary proceedings became a "shouting match," according to the Center for Public Integrity, which reported on the Indiana case as part of its extensive reporting on sexual assault. The alleged rapist was found responsible for "unwanted sexual contact," although he maintains the sex was consensual, and was suspended for one summer, later extended to two semesters. His victim dropped out of college.

These stories are common when Title IX complaints are filed. At Columbia, 23 students filed a complaint alleging that perpetrators of sexual assault were systematically allowed to remain on campus; that LGBT students face discrimination in counseling and advising; and that disciplinary sanctions are "inadequate."

Even if students don't want to file a formal complaint against their assailants, schools or colleges that learn about an incident of sexual assault or harassment are required by law to investigate, deal with the effects of the assault, and prevent it from happening again. That's because sexual harassment and assault are considered sex discrimination under Title IX.

"If you are trying to study in a climate where you feel your safety is in jeopardy, or you've been sexually assaulted and it's affecting how you're able to live your life on that campus, it's getting in the way of your being able to have an equal education," says Lisa Maatz, vice president for government relations at the American Association of University Women.

When colleges do take decisive action, they also risk legal action and complaints. Students expelled or disciplined after being found responsible for sexual assault at six colleges have filed complaints with the Education Department, arguing their civil rights were violated.

Why don't women report sexual assault to authorities?

In part, women don't report because they don't think they have been raped even if they did not or could not consent, according to the 2007 study. Survivors of sexual assault also feared their identities becoming known to their friends and family, or said they didn't have enough proof for their allegations and so chose not to go to the police.

Some students who don't report nonetheless set the complaint process in motion at their colleges. Many of those students say the disciplinary system hasn't helped and in some cases has hurt them — that it does too little to punish attackers and not enough to help survivors.

Advocates warn this can create a chilling effect. At the University of North Carolina, an associate dean of students resigned after complaints from students who were victims of sexual assault, telling the Huffington Post that the university asked the students inappropriate questions or blamed them for what happened. A student at the University of Texas Pan-American said that when she said her ex-boyfriend had sexually assaulted her, campus officials asked if the relationship had been "Facebook official."

What's the process a college follows when a student is accused of sexual assault?

The campus discipline process for sexual assault is different from a traditional courtroom in several ways. First, it puts a heavier burden on the victim, who has to actively participate in the process. In some cases, students who say they were the victims of sexual assault have to confront their accusers during the disciplinary process.

But colleges are also allowed to apply a lower standard of proof than federal courts in determining whether a sexual assault occurred. While assailants must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law, colleges can use the preponderance of the evidence — that is, they must only be more certain than not that a sexual assault occurred. (In the past, many colleges had required "clear and convincing" evidence, a midrange standard.)

This lower standard of evidence has caused controversy over the Education Department's investigations of campuses for mishandling sexual assault. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties group, has been the sharpest critic, arguing that the standard is unfair to students who are accused.

Many colleges would prefer that police and prosecutors handle sexual assault, rather than panels of students, faculty and staff who are more accustomed to issues like plagiarism. But campus proceedings also have powers that a courtroom doesn't, such as the ability to ensure that the victims and perpetrators don't have to sit in class together or live in the same dorm. For that reason, it's unlikely that the cases could ever be handled entirely within the criminal justice system.

More students are filing sexual assault complaints with the Education Department

The Education Department has received more complaints about how campuses handle sexual violence in the past six months than they did in the previous fiscal year. Complaints have increased steadily since the administration took office, according to data from a department spokeswoman.


Title IX, which forbids discrimination based on sex in education, requires colleges to protect their students from sexual assault and its aftereffects. Many survivors say they feel poorly served by campus justice.

Where are these complaints? The Huffington Post has a map of where complaints have been reported so far.

What is the Obama administration doing to prevent sexual assault on campus?

The Obama administration has focused on preventing sexual assault on campus for years now and in May released new recommendations for colleges and universities. The recommendations are from a report from a White House task force on campus sexual violence, comprising Attorney General Eric Holder, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and the leaders of several other departments and Cabinet-level agencies.

Among their proposals:

  • Guidelines for how colleges can survey students about their experiences with sexual assault. Surveys are considered a better measure of the situation on campus than reporting statistics, because many survivors choose not to formally report that they've been assaulted. The survey is voluntary, but the task force says it's exploring options to make it mandatory.
  • A suggested sexual misconduct policy for colleges, including what groups colleges should consult as they customize the policy to fit their campuses.
  • A new review from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on best practices to prevent sexual assault on campus and encourage bystander intervention. The administration is also proposing more research on effective prevention.
  • More resources and reminders for colleges on what they should do when students report sexual assault. Schools should have victim advocates who keep information confidential, and they should have a reporting protocol that makes clear what information will be shared, and with whom, when a student reports a sexual assault. The confidentiality is meant to help students who want to talk about a sexual assault without making a formal complaint.

And what the federal government is doing now:

  • The White House has launched a full-scale public service announcement campaign, "It's On Us," that presents sexual assault as a problem for everyone that everyone can help solve.
  • The Departments of Education and Justice will develop training programs for campus officials and health center staff.
  • The Justice Department will develop pilot programs for sex offender treatment at colleges and for promising models of investigating and adjudicating sexual assault on campus.
  • The federal government will provide sample agreements between colleges and local law enforcement and rape crisis centers.
  • The Education Department has provided a list of which colleges are under investigation for violations of Title IX, and it will put a 90-day time limit on colleges and the department reaching an agreement if the college is found to be violating Title IX. Without that agreement, the college can be penalized.
  • The Education and Justice Departments will also collaborate on enforcing Title IX violations.

The Education Department also sent out frequently asked questions and clarifications on what colleges need to do to comply with Title IX in sexual assault investigations.

The Education Department also gave colleges more guidance on what they should do

The Obama administration gave colleges a lot of new guidance — 52 pages — in April on how the Education Department enforces Title IX. Most of this reinforces what the department said in 2011, when it reminded colleges that they were responsible for preventing sexual harassment and assault and for responding to sexual assault when it occurs.

But the guidance, which isn't legally binding, also gives more information on how the Obama administration interprets the law. Among its points:

  • The sexual history of a survivor of sexual assault should not be brought up in a judicial hearing.
  • Survivors and the students they are accusing should not be allowed to cross-examine each other in a judicial hearing.
  • Sexual assault can occur even if two people are dating or have had consensual sex in the past.
  • Title IX protects transgender students, too; discrimination against students based on their gender identity, or on whether they conform to stereotypes of masculine or feminine behavior, is not acceptable. (At least one Title IX complaint based on gender identity has already been submitted to the Education Department. That complaint is against George Fox University, which won't let a male student live in a male dorm because he was born female.)

85 colleges are under Education Department investigation for how they deal with sexual assault

The Education Department has released lists of colleges being investigated for how they've dealt with sexual assault on campus. That's a new step for the federal government, which usually keeps ongoing investigations private until a resolution has been reached. A list of the open investigations is here.

The Huffington Post reported that an additional 32 colleges are under investigation for other Title IX issues related to sexual violence but not specifically about handling of sexual assault cases. That includes 25 cases on whether colleges retaliated against students or faculty who reported sexual assault, four cases for not designating a Title IX coordinator, and 32 cases on adopting and publishing Title IX grievance procedures. Colleges can have multiple investigations open at the same time.

How have these cards changed?

  • Oct. 15: Additional colleges added to card on colleges under investigation.
  • May 7: Additional colleges added to card on colleges under investigation.
  • May 2: The list of colleges under investigation was corrected; Boston University is being investigated, not Boston College.
  • May 1: Card added on the 55 colleges currently being investigated for Title IX violations.

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