Campuses under Pressure to Improve Safety, Social Climate for Women

In light of several high-profile cases, colleges are being called to a higher level of accountability when it comes to rape and the treatment of women on campus.

“Unfortunately, campus sexual assault is fairly common,” said Holly Kearl, program manager, American Association of University Women (AAUW) Legal Advocacy Fund. “The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network reports that college-aged women are four times more likely than any other group to face sexual assault.”

“The reasons for this vary from students being new and in unfamiliar environments or maybe being in environments where they can drink for the first time. In many sports and [fraternity settings], there is a strong need to prove manhood,” she noted, adding that campuses are feeling the pressure to respond more quickly and publicly to sensitive issues of sexual assault.

At Yale University last March, a group of 16 students and alumni filed a 26-page Title IX complaint charging that the campus is a sexually hostile environment. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reportedly has launched an investigation.

One incident described by the group involved men who were pledging a fraternity who gathered in a public spot on campus chanting: “No means yes, yes means anal.” Federal authorities are investigating whether Yale has failed to effectively handle complaints of sexual harassment and assault.

The investigation, which began last year, came just after Washington spelled out higher education’s new legal obligations to respond to sexual violence. Vice President Joe Biden announced the federal guidelines during an April 4 speech at the University of New Hampshire.

“No means no, if you’re drunk or you’re sober,” Biden said. “No means no if you’re in bed, in a dorm or on the street. No means no even if you said yes at first and you changed your mind. No means no.”

Increased Transparency

Yale’s administration has responded to concerns about transparency by issuing its first semi-annual report of 52 allegations in a period covering 1 July to 31 December 2011. The allegations of misconduct by students or employees range from harassing remarks to rape.

The new transparency is part of an overhaul adopted last year in the face of criticism about how the university has handled some cases in the past.

The report was issued in January by Deputy Provost Stephanie Spangler, who was appointed last November to oversee Yale’s Title IX compliance efforts and to lead the new educational and outreach initiatives.

“There is more that we must do as a community and as individuals to prevent sexual misconduct and to ensure that Yale’s culture is optimally supportive and unfailingly respectful of all individuals,” Spangler said.

In a statement to the community issued by the university, Yale President Richard C. Levin said: “The number of complaints of sexual misconduct brought forward and outlined in the report is a matter of deep concern. Even though only a very small fraction of our campus population is alleged to be violating our policies, our aspiration must be to raise the bar so that no one believes that sexual misconduct is acceptable—and that all act accordingly.”

Recently, the Department of Justice launched a civil investigation into more than 80 reported rapes in the past three years at the University of Montana at Missoula, where 11 student-related cases surfaced in recent months. The probe addresses complaints that authorities failed to aggressively investigate sexual assault reports in Missoula. The university has about 15,600 students.

The federal review follows a University of Montana investigation that began in December with allegations that two students were gang-raped, possibly after being drugged by several male students. According to reports, in February, the university notified a Saudi exchange student that he had been accused of rape but the student fled the country before his alleged victim filed a report with police.

A Hostile Climate

The problem of rape and sexual harassment touches just about every campus in America. According to AAUW data, during the course of their college careers, between 20 and 25 percent of women will be sexually assaulted or experience attempted assault. Of those assaults, 95 percent go unreported—making sexual assault the most drastically underreported crime.

AAUW reports that 13 percent of women are stalked during the academic year, and 90 percent know the person who sexually assaulted or raped them. Seventy-five percent of the time, the offender, the victim, or both have been drinking. And most shocking is the fact that 42 percent of raped women tell no one about the assault and that same number expects to be raped again.

According to a 2009 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, the primary reason that people don’t report rape is because of institutional barriers from administrators who respond to students with disbelief or other inappropriate behavior and campus judiciary processes that are difficult to understand and follow.

Frequently, students were discouraged and transferred or withdrew from their schools, while the attackers were rarely punished.

Last month, President Obama issued a proclamation acknowledging National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. The proclamation stated: “Rape and sexual assault inflict profound suffering upon millions of Americans every year. Nearly one in five women has been raped, and still more have endured other forms of sexual violence or abuse. Tragically, these crimes take their greatest toll on young people; women between the ages of 16 and 24 are at greatest risk of rape and sexual assault, and many victims, male and female, first experience abuse during childhood. The trauma of sexual violence leaves scars that may never fully heal. Many survivors experience depression, fear, and suicidal feelings in the months and years following an assault, and some face health problems that last a lifetime.”

A New Guard

Biden joined Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in releasing new guidelines designed to help schools and universities protect students from the threat of sexual violence and urged young men and women to take a proactive stance on the issue.

The new guidelines are intended to clarify the legal obligations of schools receiving federal funding under Title IX—which prohibits discrimination in education programs and activities on the basis of gender—with regard to responding to incidents of sexual assault or violence.

Students are involved in efforts to change the culture on college campuses through programs like Men Can Stop Rape, headquartered in Washington, D.C. Men Can Stop Rape is a national organization that mobilizes boys and men to prevent all forms of physical and sexual violence, especially violence against women. The program has reached more than 2 million boys and men in the past 10 years with a message of “strength without violence.”

Men Can Stop Rape offers student-led campus clubs where college-aged men are taught to challenge traditional stereotypes of masculinity.  The organization also sponsors awareness events on campus and provides training on campuses and military bases and has launched several campaigns including the “Where Do You Stand?” campaign that empowers male bystanders to intervene in a variety of common and potentially dangerous scenarios that students face on campus.

“The laws have been on the books for some time including Title IX and the Cleary Act, which requires schools to report assaults, but whenever there are cases that make it into the media there is a lot more scrutiny,” said Kearl of AAUW. “The Obama administration issued a letter urging people to do more. Certainly, having the administration recognize that this is a big problem helps.”

Men Can Stop Rape programs include sexual assault prevention training, awareness events, partnering with women’s groups like the American Association of University Women, and efforts to encourage classmates, fraternity brothers and friends to stand up against violence on campuses.

Joseph D. Vess, director of training and technical assistance for Men Can Stop Rape, said he gets mixed reactions when he first introduces the program to students.

“Some are excited and energized and a sizable minority really sees a need, while a vast majority is just confused. As a society, we don’t tell men how they can play an active role in preventing violence against women. Many times the reaction is that they never thought of it that way. A lot of them come around and see how important it is.”