Oct 23 9:18 PM

Meet the women taking on their universities over sexual assault

Explore more from our special series on the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, and the efforts to curb it.

On Monday, seven current and former University of Connecticut students filed a federal discrimination complaint under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, alleging that the university failed to protect against sexual assault on campus and to respond adequately after they reported attacks.

"They are simply tired of seeing women being raped and sexually assaulted at the university while the administration shows deliberate indifference," said high-profile civil rights attorney Gloria Allred, who represents the women. "And they have joined the ranks of women at many universities across the country that have chosen to fight back."

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights enforces Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits gender discrimination in education. It has open investigations on sexual assault at 25 colleges and universities over whether they have mishandled sexual assaults and done enough to fulfill their legal obligations to protect students.

Since 1972, the Department of Education -- under Title IX -- has said institutions that receive federal funds must ensure equal access to education, free of sexual discrimination. And in April 2011, Vice President Joe Biden announced new guidelines for how colleges should respond to allegations of sexual assault.

But many colleges and universities have openly admitted to being unaware of their legal obligations to protect students from sexual assault and the federal guidelines on how to deal with reported attacks.

Historically, critics say, schools have generally looked the other way, or worse, covered up sexual assault.

"I think we were reluctant to classify an assault as a sexual assault because it would be accounted in official numbers,” Melinda Manning, a former dean of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told America Tonight. Manning was dissatisfied with the university’s handling of assault complaints. “We absolutely put much more emphasis on preventing plagiarism than preventing rape. That was reality."

In January, three UNC students, one former student and Manning filed a federal complaint under Title IX that the university failed to protect against sexual assault or adequately respond to their reports.

Their stories are disturbing.

"There's depression, there's eating disorders, there's cutting, there's this internal blame, there's not wanting to go out at night,” Annie Clark, who was a UNC freshman when she says she was raped, told America Tonight. “And lot of that burden is placed on the victim to change your lifestyle, because it's your fault, you've got to get over it, figure out what you can do to make it better."

"I was told that rape was like a football game, and I should look back on my experience [as] if I was playing this game, and what would I have done differently to avoid that situation."

Annie said that when she tried to report her assault, she was blamed.

"I was told that rape was like a football game and I should look back on my experience [as] if I was playing this game, and what would I have done differently to avoid that situation," she said.

Both Clark and Andrea Pino, one of the other UNC claimants who was a sophomore when she says she was raped, said they want to see the university take sexual assault more seriously.

“I want to see somebody stand up and take ownership of it and say, ‘We messed up, but we’re going to learn from our mistakes and have the best model and the best practices in the country because of it,’” Clark said.

The problem, Pino added, is the way institutions respond to reports of assault.

"The interesting thing with universities as a whole with sexual violence is they treat it as a compliance issue,” Pino said. “They treat it as something that can be solved with a policy."

UNC’s federal funds have not been withdrawn on account of the complaint, but since it was filed earlier this year, the university has hired three full-time Title IX administrators, including compliance officer Ew Quimbaya-Windship.

“Have we done as well as we could? Colleges and universities, generally speaking, I'd say that we need to do better," Quimbaya-Windship told America Tonight. "It may be easier to talk about plagiarism. We've got to change that. We've got to switch that dynamic. We have to talk about sexual violence."

Of the 25 federal claims that have been filed, only one, from Yalehas been resolved. Still, Clark and Pino’s claim generated considerable attention, particularly online, and helped women come forward at other universities.

As many as one in four college women in the United States - almost 25 percent -- will be the victim of a completed or attempted rape during their college years, according to a National Violence Against Women survey in 2000, the most recent figures available. 

Colleges are supposed to be tracking the numbers. Since 1992, the federal Clery Act has required colleges and universities to be transparent in reporting information on sexual assault. But the numbers often don’t add up because, as an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity revealed, limitations and loopholes in the law can allow universities that receive federal funding to underreport incidents.

The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, passed as part of the Violence Against Women Act earlier this year, attempts to improve that by expanding Clery to require that universities "include all incidents of sexual violence that occur on their campuses in their annual crime reports, to offer sexual-violence protection programs, to define consent in sexual relationships and to assist victims of sexual assault in changing living arrangements." And in 2014, even more federal guidelines are on the way, educating students about reporting sexual assaults and intervening when they see a problem.

But is it enough? On Friday, Nov. 1, America Tonight will take on the issue of campus sexual assault in a special live town hall program airing at 9 p.m. ET.

With students, professors, experts and parents weighing in, we'll take a hard look at the campus culture that may fuel assaults, the role of alcohol and whether colleges and universities are handling complaints of assault in an effective and fair way. We'll also explore the latest research on college rapists, a large percentage of whom appear to be serial rapists, examine what can be done to prevent campus assaults and give voice to a growing army of activists who are working on this issue through awareness campaigns, safety programs and lawsuits.

Learn more and RSVP here.

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