Susan Walsh/AP

Lawmakers, activists mull Title IX and campus sexual assault

In the second of three planned Capitol Hill discussions on college sex assault, talk centers on how to enforce Title IX

A campaign to force U.S. colleges to improve their handling of campus rape by encouraging survivors to file Title IX complaints appears to be gaining traction, with lawmakers meeting student activists with a view to bolstering existing legislation.

On Monday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, led the second of three Capitol Hill discussions on the pervasive problem of sexual assault in universities, focusing on ways to enforce Title IX, part of a federal civil rights law which prohibits sexual discrimination in federally-funded schools.

Increasingly being invoked by college students following poor handling of their sexual assault cases, activists hope that greater enforcement of Title IX may force universities to better serve those reporting rape. But some female students are still unaware that they can use the provision to make a formal complaint.

“When many people think about Title IX they think about it in the context of [discrimination in] women’s athletics — but it is so much more,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, who is spearheading the discussions, said in her opening remarks at Monday’s meeting. “It is part of our federal civil rights scheme that ensures that students have equal access to educational opportunities free from sexual discrimination. This also means an educational environment free from sexual harassment and free from sexual violence.”

Following an increasing number of high-profile complaints from college and university students regarding sexual assaults, the Obama administration formed a White House task force on the issue. The task force called colleges to administer to students anonymous “climate” surveys on sexual assault, and launched a new, centralized website, NotAlone.gov, detailing students’ federal complaints against at least 55 colleges under the Title IX and Clery Acts, data the Department of Education hadn’t previously released.

McCaskill, along with Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, are planning to draft legislation based on their Capitol Hill discussions. She also sent out 23-page survey to some 350 colleges nationwide through the Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, asking them to describe their sexual assault policies in detail. It includes questions about how they inform students of those policies and whether they provide information about how to file a Title IX complaint about sexual violence.

“I think that often, students don’t know that they have the right to file a complaint,” said Dana Bolger, a recent graduate of Amherst College who is co-director and co-founder of Know Your IX, a grassroots advocacy group targeting campus sexual assaults across the country, at Monday’s discussion. “They don’t know what Title IX is; they don’t know that it provides them remedies at their schools.”

A January 2014 report from the White House Council on Women and Girls (PDF) revealed that 1 in 5 college women is sexually assaulted by the time she graduates. The same report found that 7 percent of college men admitted to attempting sexual assault, and more than 60 percent of those men committed multiple assaults, with an average of six each.

Meanwhile, just 12 percent of survivors in college come forward, a much lower rate than the estimated 40 percent of assaults that are reported by the general population, according to the Department of Justice.

The relatively small number of female students that report offenses may, in part at least, be attributed to perceptions of how their case will be dealt with, with some victims complaining of insensitive treatment from law enforcement officers. That's why reporting through a campus adjudication system or filing a Title IX complaint can feel like a less arduous process than going to police.

Title IX is a portion of the federal civil rights law passed in 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in any school or school activity that receives federal funds. However, the law is increasingly being applied to sexual assault by students who are filing complaints with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Indeed, the department in 2011 sent a guidance letter to all institutions, instructing them that “sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX.”

While schools such as Yale and Eastern Michigan University have been fined under the federal Clery Act — which requires accurate annual reporting of campus crime statistics including sexual assault and harassment cases — in response to student complaints about sexual assault, the Department of Education has never actually penalized a school for violating Title IX by withdrawing federal funding.

And in an analysis of the Title IX complaints filed with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights between 2003 and 2013, the Chronicle of Higher Education found that fewer than one in 10 led to a formal agreement between federal and college officials to change campus sexual assault policies.

“The lack of enforcement of the department of education’s office of civil rights is a real problem here,” Bolger told Al Jazeera. “Universities see that, and that sends a clear message that they can get away with treating survivors poorly.”

Bolger said she co-founded Know Your IX after a fellow Amherst student raped and stalked her, but when she appealed to a university dean about her options for seeking disciplinary action, he shrugged her off and suggested she take time off school and wait until her alleged rapist graduated, she wrote in a recent op-ed.

McCaskill has said that the survey data as well as the three Washington discussions on sexual assault are means to figuring out “what we can do to improve response to sexual violence on college campuses, where we may need to legislate, and maybe where we may need to un-legislate.”

One of the potential improvements floated in the discussion is to give the Education Department the power to levy fines against universities for Title IX violations, rather than the much more severe punishment of withdrawal of federal funds that could hurt students and even potentially make the problem worse.

Indeed, while some schools’ alleged mishandling of sexual assault has been attributed to a lack of resources, Bolger pointed out that many of the schools that have come under fire such as Harvard, Yale and Amherst, have vast endowments. “There are smaller schools that do need a little more carrot than stick that I do think needs to be applied to some of these larger schools,” she said. “The law has been on the books for 40 years now, and it needs to be complied with.”

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