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White House uses college-shaming to fight campus sexual violence

Released list of colleges under investigation has huge potential, but more must be done

May 3, 2014 12:15AM ET

On Monday the Department of Education announced that Tufts University was out of compliance with Title IX, the 40-year-old federal anti-violence legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in education and requires that colleges prevent and address sexual violence on their campuses. It was an important and all too rare move to name and shame a school for its violations. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama’s White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault announced that the DOE will publish nearly all findings letters and resolution agreements that result from its investigations. And Thursday the DOE released a list of the 55 colleges and universities currently under investigation for civil rights violations under Title IX. That announcement quickly spread on social media, trending on Facebook and setting Twitter abuzz — demonstrating just how much students, families and alumni want to know the truth about their schools’ handling of sexual violence.

Last July, Ed Act Now, a campaign run by Know Your IX, a legal-literacy organization I co-founded in April 2013, led more than 175,000 supporters in calling on the DOE to do its job: enforce Title IX.

Despite numerous victims’ complaints — often against the same schools year after year — the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has never in its history sanctioned a school for sexual-violence-related Title IX violations. Our campaign called on the OCR to ramp up its enforcement practices and create transparency around its investigations by publishing a list of schools under investigation, the status of those investigations and the results of closed investigations. It’s information that prospective students (and their families) deserve to know so they can make informed decisions about which college to attend. It’s also information that current students and the public need in order to hold both their schools and the federal government accountable — in the latter case, for investigations that often drag on for years with no conclusion. While we continue to await meaningful enforcement of the law, we are grateful that this week the DOE broke ground in demonstrating its commitment to transparency. It’s been a long time coming.

My story begins in an office with a dean at my college. Sitting across from this man I did not know, I explained that a fellow student had raped and then stalked me. I told him I was having a hard time attending school — on a campus of only 1,600 students, with a single dining hall and one gym — with a person who had hurt me. I asked my dean for my options to take disciplinary action against the student. He suggested that it would be best if I took some time off from school, went home and waited for the rapist to graduate. I repeated that I wanted to know my options. He removed a framed photograph from his wall of some old college buddies, chuckled and told me that he too had taken time off from school when he was feeling “overwhelmed” and that his friends didn’t forget him while he was away. I again asked for my options. He told me that if I really wanted to know, I could return to his office the following afternoon but, when I did, his secretary informed me that it was his day off. I left the office, packed up my things and went home for the semester. I never got my full tuition returned.

We must not stop at transparency. As long as the DOE fails to impose sanctions on universities that are in violation of the law, the agency sends a clear message to schools that their abuses will be tolerated.

Sexual violence changed my life and, despite clear federal law mandating otherwise, my college did little to stop it.

Since then, I’ve met hundreds of other victims who suffered the same institutional mistreatment on my campus and others across the country. Discontent with the status quo, the rest of the Know Your IX team and I decided to take the fight to the federal level. We’ve since met regularly with officials from the White House, the DOE, the Department of Justice and congressional offices, and we saw the results of some of our efforts this week.

But we need more. The groundbreaking list of schools the DOE announced Thursday is a one-time release. The department has indicated that as it opens future inquiries, it will not make public the names of additional schools. Rather, this information will be available to individuals only by private request.

It is vital that such information be widely and easily accessible to students and their families. One of my friends attends a school that has been under investigation by the DOE at least three times in the last decade (and because of the DOE’s opacity, these are just the cases we know about from survivors). While at college, he was raped, joining a club no college brochure ever advertised. He told me, “Had I known the college’s track record on sexual assault at the time of my application, I would have chosen a different school, one with a record of protecting its students. Perhaps this other school would have taken my assault seriously — or acted to prevent it in the first place.”

And we must not stop at transparency. As long as the DOE fails to impose sanctions on universities that are in violation of the law, the agency sends a clear message to schools that their abuses will be tolerated. The DOE has suggested that its hesitation in punishing schools stems from a concern that sanctions could involve the removal of all federal funding from a noncompliant college, which would be disastrous for schools and particularly devastating for students dependent on financial aid. I completely agree. But the statute leaves room for the DOE to take action “by any other means authorized by law,” which could include fines — a measure that would send a clear and incontrovertible message that a school is noncompliant and that its abuses will not be tolerated without hurting the very population such fines are meant to protect: students.

It has been a little more than two years since I sat in my dean’s office trying to fight for my place on campus. We’ve made tremendous strides since then — thanks to the tireless efforts of survivors, advocates and government officials — but our work isn’t done. It’s long past time we give Title IX teeth. Until we do so, we will remain stalled, unable to realize the full promise and potential of the law: equality in education for people of all genders.

Dana Bolger is a founding co-director of Know Your IX, a national anti-violence legal education campaign. She graduated in May from Amherst College.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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