Campus sexual assaults finally draw serious attention

May 1, 2014 

A list released Thursday of colleges and universities under federal investigation for their handling of sexual violence and harrasment complaints had two notable features. First was the large number – 55 – and second was the inclusion of schools that are among the academically elite, with campus cultures that would be especially sensitive to the issue of rape.

The list released by the U.S. Department of Education includes three Ivy League universities and the elite private schools Amherst, Swarthmore, Sarah Lawrence and Carnegie Mellon. Also on the list are North Carolina’s Guilford College and UNC-Chapel Hill.

The news behind the list isn’t what it includes but what it suggests: Sexual violence on the nation’s campuses is more widespread than commonly thought, and it’s a problem not only at large universities and so-called party schools but also at the best – and most politically correct – institutions.

The scope of the problem and the way complaints have been mishandled are discouraging – and worrisome for college students and their parents – but it is encouraging to see this long-hidden and too often dismissed problem getting full national attention.

Indeed, it’s surprising how long it has taken campus sexual assault to emerge as a national issue. A 2007 study commissioned by the National Institute of Justice found that nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are victims of an attempted or completed rape while in college. Women active in the movement to stop sexual violence on campus say those statistics appear to be low in light of their experiences and the reports of victims they’ve encountered.

The Obama administration gave the issue a major push this week with a White House task force report that urged campuses to curb sexual violence and to improve the process when victims report attacks. Vice President Joe Biden released the report Tuesday, saying, “Colleges and universities can no longer turn a blind eye or pretend rape and sexual assault doesn’t occur on their campuses.”

Sexual violence against women – and sometimes men – on campus is difficult to control. It’s the nature of college life that students get together for parties and drinking. But these gatherings both on and off-campus can be exploited by sexual predators or friends or acquaintances who don’t stop at no.

The social lives of college students aren’t likely to change, but sexual violence certainly can be sharply reduced. What it will take is a message to victims that it’s not their fault and to all students that nonconsensual sex is a crime and will be prosecuted.

Biden put it well when he described the standard that must apply. “I can’t say often enough it doesn’t matter what coat she was wearing, whether she drank too much, whether it was in the back of a car, in her room, on the street, it does not matter. It does not matter if she initially said yes and changed her mind and said no. No means no, wherever it is stated,” he said.

While no school wants to be on the list released Thursday, the inclusion of some reflects that a new intolerance for sexual violence is taking hold. That is the case at UNC-Chapel Hill where two victims of sexual assault, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, responded to the alleged mishandling of their cases by filing a federal Title IX complaint in early 2013. Title IX, a 1972 federal law, prohibits discrimination based on sex and requires schools to properly respond to reports of sexual assault. Pino and Clark are now part of a national group, End Rape of Campus, that helps other students file complaints when schools don’t handle reports properly.

Clearly, there’s a lot still to be done. The mishandling of a rape complaint against Jameis Winston, the Florida State quarterback and 2013 Heisman Trophy winner, shows how the response can be slow and inept when it comes to sexual violence that involves students and drinking.

Nonetheless, this was a good week for shedding light on a problem too long in the shadows, and that’s the best way to solve it.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service