To Report or Not to Report: Are Universities Doing Enough for Sexual Assault Victims?
Sunday, April 23, 2017 at 1:37PM
David H.K. Nguyen

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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