Campus protests against sexual assault seem to be reaching a critical mass: more and more students across the United States are campaigning against a status quo that sees too many universities sweeping victims’ complaints under the carpet. The Department of Education has received more complaints in the previous six months than in the previous year, and barely a week passes without another elite university coming under scrutiny.
All of this righteous protest has created some waves in Washington, too, attracting the attention of key players in the federal government. President Obama’s White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, convened in January, released a new set of guidelines for universities in April. And with the news that Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill will be working together on this issue, after their difference of opinion over military sexual assault, legislation may reach the floor of the Senate sooner rather than later.
Many of the report’s proposals will improve the treatment of students in US universities, by opening up what has been kept under wraps to public scrutiny. The task force will provide schools with a toolkit for conducting surveys to gauge the reality of sexual assault on campus, as well as to test student attitudes and awareness, and these surveys will be mandatory by 2016. In addition, the executive branch made the decision to publish, for the first time, the list of colleges that are under investigation for potential Title IX investigations.
Universities will be encouraged to take steps to prevent sexual assault from happening in the first place. The celebrity-laden public service announcement released recently by the White House is a measure of the government’s ambition in terms of culture change, but it’s likely to be interventions on a local scale that make more of a difference, like the expansion of bystander intervention programs developed by the University of New Hampshire. These have proven very effective at several universities.
There are also good suggestions for improving how universities deal with sexual assault when it occurs. Better policies and specialized training will go some way to fix the broken machinery that sees victims ignored and shamed instead of supported.
In reality, however, more still must be done to make Title IX effective. It’s hard to understand why institutions repeatedly need to be given guidelines to obey a law that’s been in force since 1972. All the evidence suggests that colleges are perfectly content to reach a minimal level of compliance with Title IX and no more. A recent article by Buzzfeed looked at Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez, the Philadelphia lawyers who have worked with over 50 colleges and universities in response to Title IX complaints. The article shows that despite the money they are spending to hire outside consultants, the colleges still don’t engage helpfully with survivors, and won’t upgrade their policies to do a better job.
It’s also striking how reluctant the federal government is to crack down on colleges that fail in their Title IX obligations. As Emily Bazelon pointed out in her recent editorial, the rulings handed down after sexual assault investigations have been astonishingly mild. Between 1998 and 2008, the Department of Education ruled against just 5 universities out of 24 complaints, and included no sanctions in any of the judgements - only guidance on how to improve procedures. While it frequently fines schools for misreporting statistics under the Clery Act, the Department of Education has never sanctioned a school for violations of Title IX related to sexual violence.
I think it’s manifest that both colleges and the federal government are failing survivors of sexual violence. The colleges dismiss too many complaints and prioritise the perpetrator’s needs over the survivor’s. When a perpetrator is suspended from college for a year after his institution finds him guilty – for a crime that should land him years in prison – we know something is deeply wrong.
Just as crucially, though, the government is still failing to hold colleges to account. There are other means to bring pressure on colleges to improve, including lawsuits by victims and public campaigns. But the government has the power and the obligation to enforce the law. That should be a real rather than theoretical part of the incentives that prod colleges to improve. Title IX already gives the Department of Education powerful tools to compel reforms. Until the government decides to use them, to enforce as well as advise, women at American universities will remain at unnecessary risk.