Why Are So Many Elite Schools Being Investigated for Mishandling Sexual Assault?

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May 5 2014 12:26 PM

Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton: Why Are So Many Elite Schools Being Investigated for Mishandling Sexual Assault? 

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Harvard University, one of 55 schools being investigated by the Department of Education for mishandling sexual assault complaints.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Last week, the Department of Education released a list of 55 U.S. colleges currently under federal investigation for potentially mishandling sexual assault and harassment complaints on their campuses, thereby violating Title IX by effectively discriminating against female students. The list is dominated by some of the most prestigious (and costly) colleges in the country: Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton, the University of California–Berkeley, USC, Emory, University of Chicago, Amherst, Sarah Lawrence, Carnegie Mellon, Swarthmore, Vanderbilt, University of Virginia, William & Mary, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. (Yale does not appear only because the Office of Civil Rights concluded a review of the university in 2012 and compelled it to make significant changes to its sexual assault policies in order to avoid federal sanctions.) Some lesser-known schools—like North Dakota’s Minot State University, University of Texas–Pan American, and West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine—are also under review. But all in all, it’s a remarkably elite list.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

The similarities between the schools that have come under federal scrutiny for violating Title IX and those that top annual lists of America’s top colleges speaks to a paradox in our handling of the college rape problem in the United States. In order for the federal government to learn that something may be amiss in a college’s handling of sexual assault, rape victims need to report their assaults to their schools in the first place—no guarantee, given the rampant underreporting of sexual assault in America. Then, when they feel that their colleges have not properly adjudicated their cases, those victims need to launch another complaint against the process itself, and take their cases to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The very purpose of these complaints is to prove that colleges are denying some students equal access to education by failing to properly discipline rapists and support victims. Living through an assault, pursuing a complaint against your attacker, and then furthering a civil rights agenda—while also studying organic chemistry—is an almost unthinkable feat for an undergrad. Students who are incapable of juggling those outsized responsibilities may never be heard.

Yesterday, the New York Times carved out space on its front page to feature the students across the country who are leading the charge to hold colleges accountable for sweeping sexual assault under the rug. These students describe the indignity of having to testify about highly intimate and stigmatized assaults in front of school disciplinary panels that mistrust their claims and embarrass them with questions about the mechanics of—to cite just one horrific example—anal rape. Being photographed and interviewed for the Times makes these victims vulnerable to an even greater level of embarrassment and scrutiny. The women who have agreed to shoulder these burdens in order to bring about change on their campuses are heroic activists. But it’s a role that we can’t expect from most victims. That means that these federal inquiries will be more likely to focus on schools where the stigma against speaking out as a sexual assault victim is not so intense that it chills this type of speech entirely, where students have more support from parents or professors to pursue these claims, and where students are plugged in to media networks that help raise awareness for their struggles. In other words, if the U.S. government is inquiring into your school’s sexual assault policies, you may be better off there than on a campus that hasn’t triggered a similar review.

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The Times story focuses on student activists at Columbia University, which has not (yet) attracted a federal investigation. The Columbia cases came to public attention thanks to dedicated work by the college’s student magazine, the Blue and White (Columbia is privileged enough to house multiple stellar outlets for covering campus news), and when Columbia students make noise about conditions on their campus, the Times listens. Schools like Yale and Los Angeles’ Occidental College have also benefited from attention from national media outlets to their sexual assault claims. Several schools on the Department of Education’s list also drew federal scrutiny only after making headlines: The government is now investigating Florida State’s handling of sexual assault complaints in the wake of a high-profile allegation against Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston; a previous federal investigation into the University of Montana came only after dedicated local investigations into a string of rapes committed on campus.

Most of these federal Title IX inquiries are sparked by student complaints, but in some cases, the Office for Civil Rights does initiate proactive reviews of a school’s policies. These investigations, not tied to an actual complaint being filed, could ostensibly help the government sidestep its privilege problem if done routinely, across the board. That’s not happening now. For example, OCR launched a proactive compliance review of Dartmouth’s policies in 2013, even though students at the school hadn’t filed a Title IX complaint; however, students had already filed a complaint claiming that Dartmouth failed to comply with the Clery Act—a federal law that mandates that schools track and publicly report campus crimes—and were mulling a Title IX complaint, too. And it’s no surprise that the OCR launched a proactive review of Penn State’s policies early this year, given the intense national scrutiny on Penn State’s handling of sexual assault in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse investigations. It’s good that the OCR took some initiative to investigate in both cases, but the government should assume that assaults are happening at all schools and keeps tabs accordingly.

Ada Meloy, general counsel of the American Council on Education, told the Washington Post that the list of 55 doesn’t single out the schools that have the worst policies and enforcement records around sexual assault, but rather points to “what the level of [the government’s] workload is in this area at the moment.” That’s a reminder that the government has a limited bandwidth for dealing with a problem that is likely ubiquitous at schools both big and small across the country. Part of the White House’s big current push to address sexual assault on college campuses includes a recommendation that colleges administer surveys to students to help bring unreported cases out of the woodwork and onto the OCR’s desks. Here’s hoping that schools take on the challenge, and that we can begin to uncover victims that don’t have a direct line to the New York Times.

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