University of Montana, Vanderbilt, UNC-Chapel Hill, Amherst, Swarthmore, University of Colorado at Boulder, University of California at Berkley, Dartmouth, Yale, Occidental, University of Connecticut, Emerson, University of Southern California. All of these campus communities have publicly grappled with the issue of sexual assault this year due to students and staff filing federal complaints alleging that the schools botched the handling of sexual assault complaints.
We’ve all heard the statistics. One in five women will experience a completed or attempted sexual assault while in college. 80% to 90% of sexual assault cases involve alcohol and 90% of students are assaulted by someone they know. Less than five percent of college victims report the crime to the police.
What is less known is what colleges should actually do about this epidemic. Many schools have focused on the “scare tactic” approach through orientation programming that teaches women to never walk alone after dark and in the case of University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, instructing women to vomit or urinate on would-be attackers. Other schools have instituted self-defense classes and installed emergency blue lights. Universities have adjudicated sexual assault cases by forcing victims to go through “mediation” with their attackers and making perpetrators write book reports as a part of their sanction.
It’s become clear over the last year with the tidal wave of Title IX complaints filed against schools all over the country, that colleges have been doing a pretty lousy job both preventing sexual assault and punishing its perpetrators. A student at UConn was told when she went to report her assault to campus police, “Women need to stop spreading their legs like peanut butter or rape is going to keep on happening 'til the cows come home." A student at UNC-Chapel Hill found herself brought up on honor court charges and threatened with expulsion for publicly speaking out about her assault.
While Title IX was supposed to provide guidance for schools handling these cases, the Department of Education did a poor job explaining what exactly the law mandated. New legislation, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (SaVE) has just come into effect and will give all colleges and universities clear guidance on how to handle sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking cases. It sets forth requirements for reporting, education, and adjudication of cases of interpersonal violence. Students who report incidents of violence will be granted certain rights and given access to services to help them recover and continue to pursue their educational endeavors. Those who are accused of assaulting or stalking their fellow students will also be given additional protections.
Colleges and universities will certainly have to comply with the new legislation or face steep penalties, assuming the Department of Education aggressively enforces the law. The real issue is whether schools will simply “comply” or work to make real change on their campuses.
The SaVE Act mandates that colleges must educate their entire communities: faculty, staff and students about sexual and relationship violence. While this is a daunting endeavor on many campuses, it also represents a real opportunity. Substantive research shows that quality education on interpersonal violence, especially bystander intervention can reduce the number of incidents. The newly created National Center for Campus Public Safety could act as a clearinghouse for best practices in interpersonal violence prevention education. If all schools could have access to free or low cost assistance in creating prevention programming, we are less likely to see campuses encouraging women to vomit on attackers and more actual prevention.
The Campus SaVE Act is by no means a silver bullet against sexual and relationship violence. Some would argue that it is a flawed piece of legislation that actually undermines some of the Title IX mandates. Actual enforcement of both Title IX and SaVE could go a long ways in riding our campuses of the epidemic of interpersonal violence.
In her past life, Melinda Manning was an assistant dean of students at UNC-Chapel Hill. She currently is a first year Masters of Social Work student at UNC-CH and in her free time, teaches higher education policy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.