Opinion: Sexual assault at universities and the federal response

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As college students here in Boulder, we are no strangers to the issue of sexual violence. We’ve all gotten those emails and alerts informing us about incidents on campus. But if you thought CU was a special case, think again: According to “Campus Safety Magazine” and the U.S. Department of Justice, 20 to 25 percent of women will experience a completed and/or attempted rape during their college career.

This is a nationwide problem, and thankfully, the White House has chosen to respond to it. In January, President Obama announced his plans to form a task force of several members of his administration to help come up with a plan to address the widespread issue of sexual assault on college campuses. In looking at such a large issue, the task force faces the challenge of developing new policies that help protect students, while also being strict enough on college administrations that they actually enforce the laws. Obama gave the team 90 days to come up with actions to be taken.

Aren’t there already rules against sexual assault on campus?

Under Title IX, the punishment the federal government can give to a college that fails to properly address a sexual assault incident is to deny all of its federal funding in the future. But too many colleges have been able to weasel their way around the Title IX laws. There have been cases of students being urged to not to file complaints in an effort to cover the problem up, and even if the sex offender is punished, that process can happen too slowly and ineffectively.

Last year, CU Boulder found a man guilty of “non-consensual sexual intercourse.” The eventual punishment was to suspend the offender for eight months, charge him $75 and require him to write an essay reflecting on his experience. It took the university four weeks to remove the man from campus. During that time, the offender continued to contact the victim, despite CU’s order not to do so. The victim obtained a restraining order, preventing her assailant’s return to campus.

The beating-around-the-bush is an attempt by colleges to make the problem seem less serious. Just two weeks ago, 31 former and current students of the University of California at Berkeley filed a federal complaint for its mistreatment of rape cases. UC Berkeley had failed to respond quickly to sexual assault complaints and brushed off reports of sexual threats.

And then there’s the especially deplorable case of colleges punishing students for reporting sexual assault, as has happened when the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill charged a sexual assault victim with an honor code violation for reporting her case.

What does the federal task force need to do to fix all this?

First, Obama’s delegation needs to come up with ways that the Department of Justice can enforce Title IX without simply stripping a school’s federal funding. If a college fails to deal with sexual assault quickly and appropriately, the DOJ needs to charge the people responsible for the mishandling — not the entire school and student body.

Secondly, the Department of Justice needs to work closely with colleges to give them the right tools for dealing with rape and sexual assault on their campuses. Any official at any college euphemizing his or her way around rape is appalling, and the government needs to make sure that everyone doing so will start taking sexual assault complaints seriously. If colleges aren’t so afraid of losing their federal funding because of mishandling a case any longer, maybe they’ll feel more comfortable asking the DOJ for assistance on these issues. 

What can we do to help?

Neglecting sexual assault is a cultural issue. We all try to be careful of putting ourselves or our friends in dangerous situations, but that doesn’t necessarily stop rapists and sexual assailants. 90 percent of assaulted women knew their attacker previously, and 95 percent of these incidents go unreported, according to the American Association of University Women. We have to create an environment where people feel safe talking about sexual assault. Let friends know that it’s okay to come to you if they experience an assault, and be mindful of CU’s Office of Victims Assistance and Counseling and Psychological Services office. If the White House does its part and we do ours, we can tackle this issue with the urgency and effectiveness it deserves.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Ellis Arnold at Ellis.Arnold@Colorado.edu

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