By Carol E. Tracy, WLP Executive Director and
Terry L. Fromson, Managing Attorney
Sexual assault and harassment on college campuses have finally gotten the attention of federal authorities charged with monitoring compliance with Title’s IX sex-discrimination prohibition.
The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidelines for how schools must respond to sexual harassment, including sexual assault. In addition, along with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating complaints of noncompliance, issuing findings of discrimination, and entering into resolutions with schools. College students are also filing challenges to inadequate campus responses to complaints of sexual assault and harassment.
With students heading back to colleges and universities this month, now is the time to heed the Department of Education’s call to action to address the serious issue of campus sexual misconduct.
Recent studies estimate that 20 percent of young women and 6 percent of young men will experience a completed or attempted rape during their college career. In addition, almost two-thirds of students report experiencing some form of sexual harassment, with nearly a third reporting being touched, grabbed, or forced to do something sexual. Such victimization can cause physical, emotional, and educational consequences that may be life-long. Many promising students are unable to complete their education and achieve their goals. Some victims are so traumatized that they become suicidal.
Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions. Although more generally known for its provisions related to female participation in athletics, it also prohibits discrimination in other areas, including sexual harassment. When an institution knows, or reasonably should know, of sexual harassment that denies or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from its educational program, Title IX requires it to take immediate, effective action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.
By accepting tens of millions of taxpayer dollars from the federal government, educational institutions agree to conform to federal antidiscrimination laws. However, compliance with the 41-year-old Title IX is sparse at best.
The federal government is finally taking corrective action, but recent criticism of its actions are misinformed and undermine the purpose of Title IX. Throughout its guidance to schools, the Education Department repeatedly emphasizes the importance of impartiality. The guidelines do not broaden the definition of sexual harassment. They require clear, accessible policies and procedures to encourage reporting and prevent more severe or pervasive misconduct. They have not weakened the standard for evaluating sexual misconduct or denied the accused fair treatment. They have confirmed an appropriate standard that was already used on 80 percent of campuses and given victims the same rights accorded the accused. They require interim measures necessary to eliminate a hostile environment, make campuses safer, and help victimized students stay in school and complete their education.
The government is not encouraging schools to mete out inappropriate discipline. Instead, it seeks to ensure that colleges and universities provide students with clear messages to discourage sexual misconduct. Recent criticism that suggests that simply asking someone for a date would amount to sexual harassment — and would subject a student to discipline or a college to a Title IX violation — is absurd and trivializes the severity of campus sexual assault and harassment.
For too long, campus victims of sexual misconduct have suffered in unresponsive environments embedded with victim-blaming myths. Much like women in the military, they have struggled through confusing policies and systems while seeking justice. Instead, they are often re-traumatized and wind up experiencing adverse academic and career consequences. However, finally, much like women in the military, college women are raising their voices in protest over these conditions.
Our schools need to do more, not less, to prevent sexual harassment, deter sexual predators on campus, and respond appropriately to the troubling frequency of sexual misconduct. Indeed, institutions of higher education should be striving to create model communities that are free of discrimination, sexual misconduct, and violence.
We welcome the federal government’s willingness to flex its muscle to make this happen.
Note: This piece appeared as an Op-Ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 8, 2013.