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Monday, Jul 28, 2014
Commentary

Feds right to use muscle to tackle sexual misconduct on campus


Published:

Sexual assault and harassment on college campuses have finally gotten the attention of federal authorities charged with monitoring compliance with Title’s IX sex discrimination prohibition. The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidelines for how schools must respond to sexual harassment, including sexual assault. In addition, along with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the Education Department’s Office For Civil Rights is investigating complaints of non-compliance, issuing findings of discrimination, and entering into resolutions with schools. College students also are filing challenges to inadequate campus responses to complaints of sexual assault and harassment.

With students heading back to colleges and universities this month, now is the time to heed the Department of Education’s call to action to address the serious issue of campus sexual misconduct. Recent studies estimate that 20 percent of young women and 6 percent of young men will experience a completed or attempted rape during their college career. In addition, almost two-thirds of college students report experiencing some form of sexual harassment, with nearly one-third of students reporting being touched, grabbed, or forced to do something sexual.

Such victimization can cause physical, emotional, and educational consequences that may be lifelong. Many promising students become unable to complete their education and achieve their goals. Some victims are so traumatized that they become suicidal.

Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions. Although more generally known for its provisions related to female participation in athletics, it also prohibits discrimination in other aspects of educational programs, including sexual harassment. When an educational institution knows or reasonably should know of sexual harassment that denies or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the educational program, Title IX requires it to take immediate, effective action to eliminate the sexual harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.

By accepting tens of millions of taxpayer dollars from the federal government, educational institutions agree to conform to federal anti-discrimination laws. However, in spite of more than 41 years since the enactment of Title IX, compliance with Title IX is sparse at best.

The federal government is finally taking corrective action, but recent criticism of its actions are misinformed and undermines the purpose of Title IX. Throughout its guidance, the DOE repeatedly emphasizes the importance of impartiality. The federal authorities are not broadening the definition of sexual harassment. They are requiring clear, accessible policies and procedures to encourage reporting and prevent more severe or pervasive misconduct. They have not weakened the standard for evaluating sexual misconduct or denied the accused fair treatment. They have confirmed an appropriate standard that was already used on 80 percent of campuses and given victims the same rights accorded the accused. They require interim measures necessary to eliminate a hostile environment, make campuses safer, and help victimized students stay in school and complete their education.

Despite statements to the contrary, the departments of Justice and Education are not encouraging schools to mete out inappropriate discipline, but instead are seeking to ensure that colleges and universities provide students with clear messaging that will allow for and encourage prevention of sexual misconduct.

Recent criticism that suggests that simply asking someone for a date would amount to sexual harassment that would subject a student to discipline or a college to a Title IX violation is absurd and trivializes the severity of campus sexual assault and harassment. Sexual assault is all too common on U.S. campuses, campus offenders are often serial offenders, and the harm inflicted on victims can be severe and long-lasting.

For too long, campus victims of sexual misconduct have suffered in unresponsive campus environments embedded with victim-blaming myths. Much like women in the military, they have struggled through confusing policies and systems seeking justice but instead are re-traumatized and wind up experiencing adverse academic and career consequences. And much like women in the military, college women are raising their voices in protest over these conditions.

Our schools need to do more to prevent sexual harassment, deter sexual predators on campus, and respond appropriately to the troubling frequency of sexual misconduct. Indeed, institutions of higher education should be striving to create model communities that are free of discrimination, sexual misconduct, and violence. We welcome the federal government’s willingness to flex its muscle to make this happen.

Carol Tracy is executive director of the Women’s Law Project and co-chair of WomenVote PA. Terry L. Fromson is managing attorney of the Women’s Law Project, where she specializes in impact litigation and systems policy advocacy related to educational equity, insurance discrimination, and domestic and sexual violence.

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