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To Report or Not to Report: Are Universities Doing Enough for Sexual Assault Victims?

Sexual assaults on college and university campuses are an important problem for students and administrators alike. Multiple acts exist that hold institutions of higher education responsible for handling such incidents properly and ensuring they are public records. However, problems occur when schools are not forthright in reporting their crime statistics.

One law that is imperative to this issue is the Clery Act, named for Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old Lehigh University student who was raped and murdered in her residence hall by fellow student Josoph Henry in 1986. The Clerys sued Lehigh, stating the attack on Jeanne was one of 38 violent crimes recorded at the university in three years. Her parents argued that, if the university published its crime rate, Jeanne would not have enrolled at Lehigh. The Clerys won their lawsuit and founded the non-profit group Security on Campus with the $2 million awarded from the suit.

The Clery Act, first enacted in 1990, requires colleges to report crimes that happen on or near their campuses and to warn students and employees about recurring threats to the welfare of the community. Under the act, violations leading to punishments for higher education institutions include inaccurately reporting crimes that occur on campus, not having sufficient procedures in place to handle sexual assault, and not providing timely warning to the campuses community of an ongoing threat to public safety. One case involving violation of the Clery Act involved the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). In this case, six current and former UCSB students filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), accusing the University of discouraging the reporting of sexual assault. The complaint also claimed the University did not reprimand students who admitted to sexually assaulting fellow students and created a hostile environment by allowing alleged attackers to remain in classes with their victims.

Another law requiring educational institutions to have open crime records is Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which states, “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) maintain that “when students suffer sexual assault and harassment, they are deprived of equal and free access to an education.”

According to an April 2011 letter issued by the OCR, “The sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime.” The letter, known informally as the “Dear Colleague” Letter, states it is the responsibility of institutions of higher education “to take immediate and effective steps to end sexual harassment and sexual violence.” The letter illustrates multiple examples of Title IX requirements as they relate to sexual violence, and makes clear that, should an institution fail to fulfill its responsibilities under Title IX, the Department of Education can impose a fine and potentially deny further institutional access to federal funds.

A case involving a freshman at Amherst College demonstrates a Title IX violation. Angie Epifano wrote an essay that was published in the school’s newspaper on her assault experiences, with other students, and her interaction with the sexual assault support system at the college. Nine months after Angie’s rape occurred in a dorm room, a friend suggested she talk to a counselor. When she eventually did seek counseling, Angie reported a campus sexual assault counselor told her she could not change dorms, pressing charges would be useless since the accused student was about to graduate, and asked if she was positive that she was raped. She described how the counseling center focused on her apparent psychological instability and placed her in a psychiatric hospital after admitting she had suicidal thoughts. Due to Angie’s frustration with Amherst College’s insignificant support system for sexual assault victims, she dropped out after her freshman year. Two years after her assault at Amherst, Angie and another female former student filed a complaint under Title IX.

Along similar lines, the Jerry Sandusky case at Pennsylvania State University violated both the Title IX as well as the Clery Act. The Title IX violation arose when a graduate assistant witnessed then assistant football coach Sandusky sexually abusing a child in a locker room on-campus, therefore creating a hostile work environment. The violation for the Clery Act stemmed from head coach Joe Paterno and several Penn State officials learning about Sandusky’s behavior, yet purposefully choosing to not report anything.

Certain laws are in place to ensure colleges and universities are honest about the safety of their campuses. Sexual assaults are still a hot-button topic for higher education institutions, and handling such situations is a difficult task to accomplish. Accordingly, higher education institutions must be more cognizant of sexual assault crimes on their campuses as well as creating a more empathetic and smoother process for victims of these crimes to report the assault through the proper channels.

This post was co-authored by Ms. Tara Lulla and Dr. David Nguyen. Ms. Lulla is a doctoral student in the criminal justice program at UND.

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Reader Comments (9)

Great post, Tara. Upon some reflection, higher education in relation to this particular issue has made some great strides. I think that (seemingly) most schools now have a full-time coordinator to work with Title IX management is telling of the progress made. It seems most of the sanctions and accountability takes place through financial means. I wonder what might the future directions for increasing efforts to make sure students' access and success in higher education is not derailed by environments that allow sexual assault look like? With the current legislation, I think there is legitimate reason for concerns about how the varying agencies will hold institutions accountable.

April 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Hieber

Tara, this is a pertinent topic for institutions in higher education these days. Statistics show that 70% of sexual assault go unreported. One factor that attributes to this statistic is distrust of authorities. This should be an eyeopener for institutions that they need to do a better job of not only implementing policies and procedures to keep students safe and comply with the law, but moreover create an environment where students are aware of services provided and feel safe and comfortable using them. An institution can have all the services in place to abide by the law but if students do not trust the system they will not utilize them.

April 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHeather Helgeson

It is so unfortunately that individuals who have been assaulted don't feel like they have a voice and often choose to not come forward, but it is hideous when they do come forward and are convinced by persons of authority that their story has no merit, or that the pursuit of justice is not advised. These individuals are often blamed for the incident and re-victimized in the process. Victim blaming degrades the system and can lead to even less reporting, as victims see that nothing is done, and they are unable to obtain personal closure, which can result in psychological problems for them as well. Good Job Tara!

April 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTina Monette

I did a similar topic for my blog and feel this is a very important issue that colleges and universities cannot ignore. The cost of sexual assault alone will cause these institutions to take notice. I agree with Andy that we have made great progress in relation to this growing concern on campuses and that institutions are also starting to take additional measures to become more proactive - since the typical response historically is to be reactive after a sexual assault has occurred.

April 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNaomi Hansen

For the longest time I related Title IX to the rights on women in sports. Once I learned that there was so much more, this topic become all consuming. There is so much fear with administration of lawsuits. I wonder if the focus has shifted from focusing the student first, to focusing on the legality. One thing to consider is that many people involved in the reporter structure are not trained counselors. The Amherst case highlights the need for increased training regardless of ones professional background.

May 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAbbey Lane

It seems that ever since Jerry Sandusky, a lot more is being done on each campus. No one wants to be the next Penn State. With an increasing focus on Title IX in general, I think we are seeing universities around the country take this issue seriously. I do think we are doing a lot to spread awareness, which is good. I am just not sure how we go about reaching and changing those who otherwise may assault someone. There is a lot of awareness-spreading, and I think this does some great things for women. I wonder what effect this has on men.

May 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterIsaac Hale

Great post Tara, this is a really important topic to discuss. The Jerry Sandusky case is still a prime example of what colleges should NOT do. It is good that colleges and universities are taking situations like these seriously. I am interested to see where the Title IX or additionally retaliated laws are going to go in the future.

May 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay Stack

There is definitely room for all campuses to grow when it comes to supported victims of sexual assault. Right now students have to tell their stories and put themselves out in the open in order to go anywhere past the reporting stage of these crimes. I think it also has to do with the culture of the campus you are at as well. If your college is ruled by sports, then sexual assault almost seems to be part of that culture. An example of this is Baylor where they had coaches and administrations cover up multiple sexual assaults their players committed. Who really has the power at a college campus to not only change the process, but the culture as well?

May 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Benike

I think this as an important topic to keep the pressure on. Universities are not exempt from the challenges that face communities, states and the world beyond and the implementation of policies that address these issues are needed. It was previously touched on but cannot be echoed enough. "Cover-ups" still occur on campuses and that I believe, is unacceptable. Colleges and universities should be proactive and held responsible for effective management of these situations.

May 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoy Roach III

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